Peter Saul and Mary Limited by Chris Jones - HTML preview

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“Well, shall we say he has a reputation for being ‘firm’ with demonstrators and strikers and that kind of thing,” answered Peter.

 

“Should make it a bit easier for you next time you have to deal with that Winter woman then, eh Saint?” said Saul breezily.

 

“Indeed it will. I’ll be off now I think. See you in a few minutes at my place Saul?” Peter puffed out.

 

Mary raised her eyebrows at Saul.

 

“I told you strange things happen in Shia’s harem, didn’t I darling,” said Saul, by way of reply.

 

“I still don’t quite believe it. But you certainly touched a nerve when you mentioned your cousin Salima. Is she really one of Salima’s personal assistants?” “Well, she provides personal services, let’s put it like that,” replied Saul with a mischievous grin.

 

“Let’s hope Mrs Fisher doesn’t know about her too then,” said Mary. “Peter’s life wouldn’t be worth living.”

 

“I think that’s occurred to Peter too, don’t you darling? Anyway, I’m off to meet him now, talk it over man to man.”

 

“Which reminds me Saul,” said Mary with mock sternness. “I heard you were seen in the bar with my Croesus.”

 

“You do let yourself listen to such dreadful gossip Mary,” said Saul, flicking a strand of hair back into place as he walked out.

 

Chapter 28

By good fortune, Saul had been early into the office, and had found himself signing for the delivery of a parcel addressed to Peter. It was about the size of a paperback, and had the logo of Sonny and Shia on it. Before heading up to talk to Peter, Saul returned to his desk and collected the parcel. He shook it slightly, and smiled grimly to himself as he heard it rattle. There could be little doubt what was in it. He took it with him as he headed up the stairway to heaven.

Peter was sitting whitely behind his desk. Saul, who knew him well, read a mixture of fright, anger, and bafflement in his face as he looked up. So much the better, he thought.

“Parcel for you,” he said to Peter. “From Shia.” He delivered his punch as Peter looked up.

“Wonder what it could be?” said Peter innocently taking it. “Looks like a box of Turkish delight maybe?” he said with attempted flippancy. He began to open it, saw the video inside, and sat down heavily. “Maybe I’ll save it for later,” he muttered, reaching for one of his drawers.

“We’re both grown up, and we’ve worked together a long time, Peter,” said Saul harshly. “I know what’s in the parcel.”

 

“And?” said Peter, his arms folding.

“And I don’t want a bloody good Operations Director and an even better colleague going to pieces and doing anything stupid,” said Saul, suddenly softening his manner. “I’ve met your wife a few times, remember.”

Peter winced, and then looked up at him hopefully.

“Listen. You know the company’s in the shit. I know you’re in the shit. We’ll make a deal. You stop flapping like a penguin about the Columbus expedition and ocean going sailing heading westbound, so we can all get on together and conquer the Americas. I’ll support you while you dig yourself out of the hole you seem to have climbed into with Shia. Deal?”

Peter thought for a moment, balancing his chances. On the one hand, there were Jupiter’s rather vague promises about bigger jobs and accidents in the future. On the other hand, the very definite and immediate threat of the video.

“Why don’t we see what Shia’s message is?” suggested Saul, interrupting his thoughts.

Peter extracted the parcel again from his drawer, and pulled out a letter. “Dear Mr Fisher,” he read. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you and entertaining you. I’m sure you will find this copy of some of your time here amusing. Please give me a call, and I will be happy to sell you the original. Kind regards, Shia.”

“I’ll sign off anything you have to agree to get Shia off your back. Two Directors will be enough, although I’m sure I can fix Mary too,” prompted Saul. “Does Mary know?”

“She knows about Columbus,” answered Saul carefully. “I had to get her involved to get him the money for his grant. And she’s agreed with me all along that we had no real choice but to go west. She has particular reasons for not wanting complications with Gautama I believe.”

Peter was silent.

“Look Saint,” began Saul again kindly. “I want the company back together, I want you on board, and I want Peter Saul and Mary to be the success it used to be. Now do we have a deal?”

“Salima’s really your cousin?”

“Yes she is. And if you really want to carry on seeing her somewhere more discreet, she’s expensive but not quite as expensive as visiting her at Shia’s. I’ll give you her number if you like. As I said, I’ve met your wife several times.” “OK Saul, thanks. Yes we have a deal. I’m really sorry.”

“That’s OK Peter. Call Shia in a few moments, get it over with. I’ll be on my way now.”

 

“Saul, look thanks, really thanks.”

Saul’s face twisted with embarrassment, and he left to tell Mary that Peter would cooperate with the conquest of the Americas without any more problems.

Peter picked up the phone and dialled.

 

“Mr Fisher, how nice to talk to you again. Of course, you would like the original of a certain item. It could be arranged,” said Shia.

 

“Do you have a suggestion?” asked Peter carefully.

 

“There is a little war taking place at the moment between your little Venice and our magnificent Ottoman empire, yes?”

“Yes,” agreed Peter, although he hadn’t paid it much attention. It seemed like just a border squabble of the kind that was always taking place in that part of the earth.

“I think perhaps you could lose a few battles, and some fortresses around the coast of Greece, in the next few months. I will place a certain item with a lawyer, with instructions to send it to you when the Ottoman forces are in possession. Is that acceptable?”

Peter was deeply relieved to get off so lightly. Of course the consequences of letting Sonny and Shia into Greece were probably going to be unpleasant in the long term. But right now the long term seemed unimportant.

“It’s acceptable,” he said. “I’ll expect a lawyer’s letter…”

 

“Today, by courier. Goodbye Mr Fisher.” There was a click as Shia disconnected.

Now what? Peter felt the need to re-establish himself, in his own eyes as much as anybody else’s. What could he do? Of course, the schism! He’d been neglecting it. He could get it moving again, make a really thorough job of it, show the world he knew how to run a project and do a top quality schism. Now, where was that Luther file?

Chapter 29

Mary entered the board room expecting a difficult meeting. She’d been too busy catching up after her week with Apollo (she sighed, wistfully) to speak with either Saul or Peter after the argument about Columbus. Despite Saul disappearing to discuss it privately with Peter, and his apparent, she hesitated before using the word, blackmailing hold over him, she was still expecting blood on the carpets. And she was increasingly sick of her role as peacemaker.

To her surprise, she found Saul and Peter already seated, and apparently discussing some practical points in a document headed “Conquest of Mexico, Project Plan.” It look well enough presented to be Croesus’ work. It would certainly be most unlike Saul to have produced anything so formal.

“Morning you two,” she said brightly. “Did you write that yourself Saul?”

 

Saul coloured slightly. “Well hello Mary,” he said. “Your turn to chair this one isn’t it?”

 

“It is. And did you?”

 

“Did I what?”

 

“Write it yourself.”

 

“Well, maybe I had a bit of help from my friends.”

 

“Friends on my staff?”

“Well, he does present everything so beautifully.” Saul saw Mary’s scowl and continued hurriedly. “Anyway, look it comes later on the agenda. Why don’t we start the meeting. Here’s Moses!” he said thankfully, as Moses shuffled in with his tablets.

Mary decided not to pursue it further, and called the meeting to order. After some routine administrative items, they came to the finances. Mary passed round some papers.

“Sorry I couldn’t get these to you before, but you know I’ve been away and then we brought the meeting forward. And I think some of my staff might have been a little distracted,” she couldn’t resist adding, looking pointedly at Saul.

“Anyway, I think ‘dreadful’ just about sums up the position. I’ll start with the income side. It’s fairly straightforward. The Black Death wiped out half our population. And the refinery inspections are still going on, and we’re still stockpiling into Purgatory, so we’re only able to sell half of what’s left. So income is about a quarter of what it was a hundred years back.”

“I suppose it’ll improve once we can start releasing souls from Purgatory will it?” asked Peter.

“It’ll improve to a level where we can about break-even. If we just turn to the next page and look at costs you’ll see they’re running about double, measured on a per soul basis, compared to a hundred years ago. The soulminers’ pay award, coupled with the extra costs involved in running the Purgatory operation have seen to that.”

“Cash reserves?” murmured Saul.

“We’re trading at a loss as you can see. We can probably last about another 10 years before reserves reach zero. After that, we’ll have to borrow, and that means Croc Cayman’s pound of flesh. And we won’t get even that if the figures still look like this.”

“I guess we have to hope for the next soulminers strike to be sooner rather than later then?” observed Peter.

 

“Well, it would certainly help if we could get the soul-flow back to normal,” answered Mary.

 

“Have you kept any back for special projects, darling?” asked Saul anxiously. “You said you needed about a hundred thousand for your pilot project in

Mexico, Saul. I’ve kept that out of the saving Peter made buying Andalucia. Since he got it for less than a million, the difference is what’s left for your project.”

“I’ll only need a hundred thousand, Mary,” confirmed Saul.

 

“That still leaves thirty five thousand credos or so I believe,” said Peter. “Perhaps we could discuss my progress report on the schism now?”

“I think we’ve all got the message about the finances. If it’s not improved by say 1520AD, we won’t be trading,” said Mary flatly. “So yes, let’s have your item.”

“Actually I’ve been thinking about the schism,” put in Saul. “Maybe we don’t need to run it now?”

 

Peter’s eyebrows shot up, and he leaned back and folded his arms.

Saul was continuing. “I mean, the idea was to stimulate our people to go out and conquer brave new worlds, and so on wasn’t it?” Mary nodded. “Well, they’re doing it anyway, aren’t they? So perhaps we should just leave friend Luther in UHT, and save him for another day.”

“Not possible Saul,” said Peter firmly. They looked at him.

 

“Err, why not Saint?” said Mary, sensing trouble.

“Because I’ve already taken him out of UHT. He’s been to Rome about five years back, and been suitably horrified by the corruption and decadence of the established church. He just wrapping up his theses as we speak, probably ninety-five altogether. And then I expect we’ll follow Saul’s original plan and get him to nail them to a porch, and watch the fireworks start.”

Saul was in a dilemma. On the one hand, the schism was a waste of time and money, and ran the risk of distracting the Spanish just when he wanted them focussed on world conquest. On the other hand, it would keep Peter busy and out of his hair, just when he personally needed to focus on world conquest.

“Could we just take another look at your theological basis?” he asked, temporizing.

Peter distributed some documents, and began to run through them. Midway through, Saul, unable to contain himself, exploded suddenly. “What the hell’s this, Saint? ‘No requirement to attend regular confession’?!”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Mary.

“Non-confessional faith?! How on earth are we meant to get our message over to the punters without a giving them a regular statement of their account? How do you expect me to run a doctrine without regular priestshots? How do we communicate special offers, for example? We could never have set this purgatory concept up if we weren’t issuing regular accounts to every punter.”

“Aren’t you over-reacting a bit Saul?” asked Mary. Here we go again, she thought, Mary the peacemaker. “They’ll still go to church every week, surely?”

“And the new set up means they’ll have to listen to lengthy sermons every time. You’ll still be able to get the message across, Saul. You’ll just have to use a slightly different medium. Sermons instead of one-to-one coaching.”

Saul collected himself. This was one they’d have to fix later. Right now, there were more urgent issues, and he really couldn’t afford to quarrel again with Peter so soon after getting him back onside.

“Of course you’re right,” he said conciliatingly. “Sorry, I was wound up by the finances, hadn’t really appreciated how awful they were till this morning. Sorry Peter, please do continue.”

Peter resumed, and was noting that he expected to need most of the remaining project funds when Saul chipped in, “actually, we’ve got the Printing project much further down the road than I expected too. It should really help you out getting Luther’s message across and stimulating arguments all across Europe. Why don’t you take all the remaining funds and spend the extra on Printing, Saint?”

Mary was relieved. It seemed there wouldn’t be a fight to break up after all. “OK, I think we’ll take that down to the minutes then.” She nodded to Moses, who began to scratch some notes on his tablet.

“Back to the agenda then. Pilot project for conquest of Americas. Mexico. Saul, your item,” she said, taking the folder Saul passed over to her. She looked at it closely. There was no doubt it was Croesus’ work.

“Well, there are two main aspects to deal with, as you can see presented so nicely in the beautiful document you have in front of you,” said Saul provocatively.

“Which are?” asked Mary severely.

Saul was unabashed. “Well the actual conquest itself, of course. We’ve picked the leader, lovely chappie named Cortes, Hernan Cortes. We had another little ocean going sailing trip, Grijalva I think his name was, who conveniently enough managed to discover civilisation on the coast of Mexico. I paid a decent bonus to the agent who did the manifestation as his navigator, by the way,” he added as an aside. “I hope neither of you objects.”

Bonus payments in Marketing were known to be one of Peter’s bugbears, but he kept quiet. Thank goodness for small mercies, thought Mary to herself. “Anyway this Grijalva got everyone all excited, and friend Cortes is equipping his expedition at this very moment.”

 

“How much is that going to cost?” asked Mary.

 

“Well that’s probably around sixty thousand out of the hundred,” answered Saul.

 

“And the other forty?”

 

“That’s the other part of the game, darling. We need to distract the current soulbroker in Mexico.”

“Who is it?”
“One of the real old firms, Hearts-of-Gold they’re called. Really just one rather middle-aged chappie, with an unpronounceable name. Chaosll or something. It’s written down there. Here we are. Mr Q Coatl.”

“What does the Q stand for,” asked Peter.

 

“Quetzal I think. Odd name.”

 

“Quetzal Coatl?” confirmed Mary.

“You said it, darling,” grinned Saul. “Apparently he’d got things sorted so he just had to visit them every fifty-two years, and otherwise just let the soul-flow look after itself.”

“So how are you distracting him?” asked Mary.

 

“My cousin Salima has got a job as his PA.” Saul sat back to enjoy the effect. Mary tried not to laugh, while Peter looked at his hands.

Unable to resist the temptation, Saul passed a card over to Peter. “Here’s the address for Hearts-of-Gold Ltd, you might want to give them a call sometime,” he said.

Peter attempted to look unconcerned. “Oh yes, certainly. I don’t think I’ve met their operations director, might look him up,” he added unconvincingly.

“You do that,” smiled Saul. “And that’s all there is to it really. This Quetzal chappie is due to make another visit to them in about two years time, but his thoughts should be elsewhere and Cortes can just sort of move in. I was just running through some of the details of the logistics, divisions amongst the local kingdoms, that kind of thing, with Peter when you came in, Mary.”

“It all looks very thoroughly worked out to me,” said Peter pompously. “I move we approve the plan.”

 

“Carried,” said Mary. “Moses?”

 

“There are a couple of other points, actually,” said Saul.

 

“Yes?”

“I think it might be a good idea to try and pretend we’re still giving a high profile to our eastbound expeditions and our Portuguese bunch. It might just help distract certain key spectators, don’t you think?”

“Sounds a good idea to me. What do you suggest?” said Mary.

“I think Mary should handle replying to Gautama’s protest, and manage the Portuguese for a bit. That alright with you Saint?” Peter nodded. Mary looked unhappy but Saul was continuing “the fact that it’s our FD handling operational matters ought to reassure Gautama that we really are just seeing it as a trading venture going forwards, while the fact that it’s still one of the Board ought to reassure Jupiter and his friends that we’re still serious about heading eastbound. Do you see what I mean, darling?”

“OK,” said Mary glumly. “So you think I should reply to Gautama saying that the Portuguese are only there for trade, not conquest.”

 

“Absolutely. And try and make sure that’s really the case for a bit I think, don’t you?”

 

“And your second point?” asked Mary.

“I think we ought to try and fix the other shareholders. See if we can get Beelzebub and Mrs Carpenter to privately approve this American stunt. I’m pretty sure I can get to Beelzebub on the quiet fairly soon.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to lose there,” put in Peter. “You know I’d be much happier if I didn’t think we were doing all this in direct opposition to what was resolved in the All Investors Meeting.”

“Do you think you could handle the Carpenters then, Saint?” suggested Mary. “You know Mrs C approves of you.”

 

“I can certainly give it a try,” said Peter.

 

“Marvellous, Saint. Thank you,” said Saul. “I think that about wraps it up Mary?”

 

“You seem to have thought of everything Saul,” said Mary admiringly. Which was true, she thought.

 

“OK, end of meeting, then, Moses you got all that?”

 

Moses nodded, and continued scratching notes.

 

Chapter 30

Peter was due to go out shortly for lunch with Mr and Mrs Carpenter. He glanced at his watch. Another ten minutes or so. His hand hovered over his phone, while he debated with himself for the final time. He finally resolved to go ahead, picked it up, and dialled a number. It was answered promptly.

“Hearts-of-Gold Soulbrokers, how may I help you?” said a female voice.

 

“This is Peter Fisher here, from Peter Saul and Mary, I wonder if I could sp….”

 

“Ah, Mr Fisher,” said the voice. “My name is Salima. I think we have already met. Saul Tarsus said you would be calling. I believe you would like a price list?”

 

“Er… well….er….” stammered Peter.

 

“If you would just give me your email address, I can send one right over to you now.”

 

Peter read out his details.

 

“You will find my contact details in the email. I look forward to speaking to you again, Mr Fisher. Good bye for now.” The phone went dead. Deciding it would be better if he read the email later, Peter pulled on his coat and headed out for his lunch.

A short while later, he sitting with Virginia and Joseph Carpenter in a smart restaurant. Mrs Carpenter had asked how the schism was going, and Peter was giving her chapter and verse. She beamed approvingly.

“Very good Peter. I take it Saul isn’t involved in it at all then?”

 

“Not right now, Mrs C, I’m handling it all personally,” said Peter, puffing up a little.

“No wonder it’s all going so splendidly,” smiled Mrs Carpenter. Her hair seem to have been rinsed to a colour to match today’s twinset, which was a rather electric blue. Joseph, in his usual browns, looked particularly drab next to her. He was losing the battle to eat his langoustines tidily. Bits of shrimp were scattered across the table-cloth.

“And how’s the sailing project?” continued Mrs Carpenter.

 

“That’s going very well too. Your recommendation of Portuguese oak has been a real success,” said Peter, turning to Joseph, who looked embarrassed.

 

“Well thank you, I was sure it would be just the right kind of wood for you, you know…” he began.

 

“And are you still heading east?” Mrs Carpenter cut through Joseph’s meanderings.

 

“Well, it’s funny you should mention that,” began Peter. “We are going east, of course, Saul’s been handling it…”

Mrs Carpenter let out a harrumph. “Saul? He couldn’t handle a rowing boat. Maybe you should take a hand in it yourself Peter. Perhaps you could go west while Saul messes up the east?”

“Well the All Investors Meeting did insist on going east, Mrs C,” said Peter. “As I recall, Jupiter and Saturn insisted on going east. I was against it, if you remember. I thought it would be a failure, especially if Saul was leading it.” It was turning out rather better than Peter had expected. “So,” he said carefully, “we could count on your support if we were to try west instead?”

 

“Certainly.” Mrs Carpenter nodded emphatically. “Couldn’t they Joseph?” “What? West? Oh yes, indeed my dear, absolutely you have my votes Peter, of course,” wittered Joseph.

 

“Provided you’re leading it, Peter,” said Mrs Carpenter. “You are going to lead it, aren’t you? Not Saul?”

“Yes,” answered Peter firmly. I am going to lead it, he thought, even if not quite yet. Once Saul’s done the pilot project in Mexico, I’ll make sure I’m in charge of the main conquest of South America. After all, it will be a specialoperations-on-earth matter by then, not R&D at all. My department, not Saul’s.

Chapter 31

Saul and Mary were sitting in Mary’s office, attempting to find a formula to describe Salima’s activities at Hearts-of-Gold that would allow them to claim tax allowances in a fashion that would be acceptable to the tax authorities, when Peter came bouncing in excitedly.

“Have you seen the news?” he boomed.

 

“No, we’ve been busy with Salima,” grinned Saul.

 

Peter’s flinched slightly, before continuing, “it’s happening, just what we wanted!”

 

“What’s happening, Saint?” asked Mary.

 

“Another Soulminers strike!” said Peter happily. “I heard it on the radio on my way back. Why don’t we go and watch the TV in the boardroom?”

 

“Sounds good to me,” said Mary, and they trooped out.

The television news confirmed Peter’s announcement. A grim looking Augustus was interviewed, announcing that Deng Xiao Ping would be handling it for the government, and that there would be no further concessions to S.O.U.L. Deng Xiao Ping appeared briefly to say he would be seeking early meetings with all those involved and reiterating Augustus’ no concessions announcement. Finally Ms Winter appeared smiling toothily. Before they could hear what she had to say, Moses appeared in the doorway.

“There’s been a call for Mr Tarsus, from a Mr Deng. Please would he attend a meeting at the Ministry of Labour at 4pm, bringing a detailed report on stockholding in purgatory with him,” said Moses, deadpan.

“Game on, girls and boys,” cried Saul. “We’d better sort out the report they want. I think I could do with help from both of you.” He rose, bizarrely managing to appear both languid and urgent at the same time, and switched off the television set. “I think we’ve got the message, haven’t we. Your office, Saint?”

As they walked across the office, Moses appeared a second time. “A Ms Winter called, for you Mr Fisher,” he said. “Would it be convenient for her to meet you here tomorrow morning?”

Peter looked over at Mary. “Are you free tomorrow, Mary?” he asked, rather sheepishly.

 

“Surely you can deal with the Winter woman?” mocked Saul.

 

“Leave it, Saul,” said Mary sharply. “Yes Peter, I can be free. Do you want me in the whole meeting?”

“If you wouldn’t mind Mary. You seem to be able to calm her down better than I can. Anyway, let’s get the figures together for Saul this afternoon shall we?”

“Would you mind making a start yourselves,” said Saul suddenly. “I’m just going to call Beelzebub’s secretary I think, and check he’s going to be there too.”

Mary asked Croesus to join herself and Peter preparing the figures. Might as well impress Deng with the presentation she thought to herself. Saul, predictably, was delighted when he came in a few minutes later. Mary quashed him as she went over his brief.

“Basically, we’ve built up about ten years’ stock based on our normal rate of sales. Of course, if no one else has any stockholdings, and it’s all down to our souls in our Purgatory, we could probably supply the government for about two years,” she summarised at the end. Croesus was taking detailed notes, and asked if he might leave to prepare the presentation.

“Make it beautiful, darling, make it beautiful for me,” called Saul as Croesus left.

“It should just see us through Mexico, if it all goes according to your timetable Saul, and provide us with enough funds to operate until about 1530 or so, and run a fairly cheap conquest of north or south America I suppose. This strike means it’s better than it was, assuming Beelzebub opens his refineries back up to us and we get a good rate for the souls from Purgatory, but it’s still not fantastic. We still need more souls going through or we’ll still be running at a loss in the long term. It’s still going to be pretty challenging to be running at a good profit by fifteen fifty and the meeting.”

“What are you going to say to the Winter woman?” asked Saul. “Tell her to get lost I guess,” replied Peter.

 

“Wonderful darlings,” said Saul. “I say, I need to be getting on if I’m going to make it to the Ministry on time. Have fun with Ms Winter!”

 

Chapter 32

Saul presented himself at the Ministry of Labour, and found himself whisked off by a rather serious young man, who showed him into an office on the top floor. Entering, he found Beelzebub, Scheherezade and a small, tough looking Chinese man whom he recognised as Deng sitting around a table. They rose to greet him.

“How’re ya doin’, Saul?” said Beelzebub, waving a cigar expansively. “Good to see ya again.”

 

“Hi Bubba,” said Saul.

“Hello again, Mr Tarsus,” said Scheherezade musically. “Have you met Mr Deng, the Minister for Labour?” Deng put down his cigarette – as Saul discovered, he appeared to chain smoke – and shook his hand.

They exchanged introductions and got down to business. Saul passed around Croesus’ excellent presentation of the Purgatory situation, and talked through it. There were many detailed questions from Deng, and Saul was glad both that he was properly prepared and that Beelzebub was there with him.

Finally, Deng and Scheherezade seemed satisfied. “So, it seems you could see us through a strike of around two years’ duration, Mr Tarsus.” It was a statement from Deng, not a question.

“Excellent. I think this time we will make a more…” Deng hesitated, seeking the right word, “sensible resolution with the Soulminers’ Union.” He smiled slightly.

“I sure hope so, Mr Deng, I sure hope so,” said Beelzebub.

Scheherezade turned to Saul and Beelzebub. “Although it is not my department, of course,” she smiled slightly, “I think you will find that the inspections of your refineries will cease as of now. You should find, Mr Tarsus, that you are able to ship your souls steadily to Hell Refineries, at that they will be able to process them and pay you a fair price for them.”

“You’ll get quite a premium for them, Saul, quite a premium,” boomed Beelzebub.

 

“That’s fantastic news, thank you very much,” said Saul, feeling obliged to contribute but uncertain what he could add.

“Will you excuse me, Mr Tarsus?” said Deng. “I’m sure you will understand I have much to attend to at this time. Your presentation was excellent, Purgatory is a fine concept. You are to be congratulated. Goodbye for now, Mr Tarsus.” He rose, shook hands and left.

“I mentioned to you last time we met that we had heard some interesting stories from some smugglers we picked up, Mr Tarsus,” began Scheherezade.

 

With Deng gone, Saul felt able to relax slightly. “Please call me Saul. And do go on,” he said.

 

“I understand you are attempting to, shall we say, interfere in their operations?”

Beelzebub smiled knowingly at him. “We know you’re aiming for south America, Saul,” he said. “It’s pretty fine by us, as long as you don’t try to start up where Jupiter and his boys might have to leave off.”

Saul looked startled. “You mean, you’ve no problem with us ignoring the All Investors Meeting?” he said, caught off guard.

 

“Hell refineries is no fan of cocaine smuggling,” said Beelzebub firmly. “It’s pretty obvious why Jupiter and Saturn wanted you headed off east.” “So it’s definitely cocaine then?” asked Saul. He might as well confirm the rumours.

“Definitely, Saul,” said Scheherezade gravely, “but as yet, we can’t prove it. Smuggling ginseng, well that’s a bit against the law of course, but really not too serious. Cocaine, on the other hand…”

“With the government publicly committed to the war on drugs…” added Beelzebub.

“If you decide on a conquest of South America, you can count on some, shall we say, unofficial official assistance should you need it,” said Scheherezade. “And of course, we still owe you the favour we promised as a reward for accepting us messing you around with the refinery inspections. Good luck, Saul, and good luck in your business ventures.”

It was a dismissal. Saul began to leave, and was surprised to see Beelzebub remain behind. He was about to comment on it, when he caught Beelzebub’s eye and decided against. The same rather serious young man was waiting to show him out. Saul eyed him up speculatively but thought better of that too.

Chapter 33

 

Peter and Mary were waiting in the Boardroom when Moses showed in Ms Winter, the Queen of S.O.U.L.

 

“Well, sister, how yo’ doing!” she shrieked at Mary as she entered.

 

“Good morning, sister,” said Mary carefully.

 

The Queen gestured at Peter. “Sister, you still working with this Hooooot Stuff?” she yelled. Mary smiled despite herself.

 

“I’m gonna get some Hot Stuff, baby, this morning, gonna have some Hot Stuff baby…” sang the Queen. Peter tried manfully not to flinch.

“Good morning Ms Winter,” he began. “We understand you’re here to explain the reasons behind this latest, and I must say, unnecessary, strike,” he finished pompously.

“Pay, Hot Stuff, Pay!”

“But you’ve already received a very significant increase as a result of the settlement made when Charles Stuart was Minister for Labour,” objected Peter. Mary willed him to relax a little, and at least use a normal tone of voice. It seemed that the Queen brought out his most stuffed-shirt manner.

“We work hard for the money,” began the Queen in response. “We’re not disputing that…” attempted Peter, but he was quickly drowned out.

 

“So hard for it honey. We work hard for the money, so you’d better see us right!” sang the Queen.

 

“After the last pay rise,” tried Peter again, “I really feel we’ve already seen you right.”

“It’s a sacrifice working day to day, for so little money, just bits of pay!” “But the last huge rise was only a generation ago!” objected Peter. Mary was beginning to feel she needed to make a contribution but the Queen was back in full flood again.

“Twenty-eight years have come and gone, and I’ve seen a lot of tears, of my members who come in, they really seem to need me there.”

 

Peter hesitated, and Mary saw her chance.

“I’ve known a few girls who thought they were pretty smart,” she began. This had never really been her sort of thing, but there was a time and a place. At least she seemed to have caught the Queen off-balance for a moment. “But you’ve got being right down to an art,” she continued more confidently.

“I have sister, I have,” cried the Queen. She was watching Mary carefully, with what seemed to be the beginnings of some respect.

 

Mary carried on. “You think you’re a genius, you drive me up the wall…”

 

“I’m a regular original,” put in the Queen.

 

“A know-it-all,” replied Mary. This was probably taking it a bit too far, and it allowed the Queen to get her next line in first.

 

“Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re something special,” she pointed at Peter. “Ohoo-oh, you think you’re something else,” pointing at Mary this time.

Mary saw her moment. “Okay, so you’re the Queen of SOUL – That don’t impress me much,” she rapped the table in rhythm to emphasise the final five words.

“So you got the lines, but have you got the cash? Now don’t get me wrong (sister!),” shouted the Queen, “yeah I think you’re alright. But that won’t pay my members in the middle of the night.”

“That don’t impress me much,” rapped out Mary again. Peter watched agog. Mary’s performance was a revelation, and it was clear she was getting the better of Ms Winter.

Evidently the Queen thought so too, for she decided to try a different approach. “I’m a lady who’s sure,” she cried, “all that glitters is gold, so I’m trying the stairway to heaven.”

Mary was equal to her. “When you get there you’ll know, that the tills are all closed, and with no words will you get what you came for!”

“We’ll never sell out, we never will…” The Queen was reverting to her opening approach. “We work hard for the money, so hard for it honey, we work hard for the money and you better see us right.” She put on her coat, and strode for the door.

“Good day to you Sister,” she cried. “Good day, Hoooot Stuff,” she cried at Peter, and stormed out.

Peter stood and applauded. Mary bowed. “If only Saul could have seen you,” said Peter admiringly. “You were magnificent. She won’t bother us again I don’t think!”

“Actually I rather enjoyed that. Maybe there’s a future for me as a union militant if things don’t work out here,” smiled Mary.

 

Saul appeared in the doorway. “Ms Winter just passed me in the corridor going like a battery hen out of hell,” he said. “It went well then?” “Mary was fabulous,” said Peter, and described the recent action.

 

“So it was your dulcet tones carrying through the window that I could hear as I was parking the car was it?” said Saul.

 

Mary blushed. “How did you get on at the Ministry?” she asked to change the subject.

“Excellent, I would say darling. Deng’s pretty tough, which is good news I think, should mean the strike drags on and on and fills up our purgatory coffers,” began Saul. He went on to give an account of the rest of his discussions. As he reached the end he almost mentioned Beelzebub remaining behind with Scheherezade, but changed his mind. After all, he wasn’t sure if should read anything into it. On the other hand it might come in useful.

“How’s Mexico going?” asked Mary as he finished.

 

“All according to plan so far, darling.”

“I know we’ve only recently had one,” said Peter, “but could I suggest another Board meeting once Mexico is under control? We’ve got a few decisions to make I think, especially about our biggest shareholders.”

“If you’ll chair it, then yes you can,” said Mary.

 

“I’ll let you know when Mexico’s wrapped up then, shall I?” suggested Saul. “We can have it a few days later.”

 

Chapter 34

Another day, another board meeting, thought Mary. At least she wasn’t chairing this one. Peter was already there when she entered the boardroom. Seeing her arrive, and now safe from being alone in the room with Peter, Moses followed her in.

They waited a few moments for Saul to arrive. Peter looked at his watch. “Perhaps we should start without him?” he suggested, tentatively. “Come off it Saint. I think he just wants to make an entrance.”

Right on cue, Saul flounced into the room. “Item one,” he declaimed. Peter looked slightly irked, and in any case item one was supposed to be ‘minutes of the previous meeting’. “Item one,” said Saul again, “ladies and gentlemen, I am proud and delighted to inform you that, as of this hour three weeks ago, Mexico is now a Christian country! Hip hip…”

“Hooray,” answered Mary. “That’s fantastic Saul!”

Even Peter, who found it difficult to take pleasure in someone else’s successes, looked pleased. “Very well done Saul,” he said rather stiffly. “Moses, take to the minutes that the meeting congratulated Saul on an outstanding achievement in the speedy conquest of Mexico.”

“Seconded,” added Mary, applauding loudly.

 

“Perhaps we should move into the financial report, Mary,” suggested Peter.

“I take it you’ve all read the pack, yes? Good. Well, in summary, we’re now getting a decent return on Andalucia and Mexico should start delivering souls to us within the next few months. There’s some strange figures from Greece, where we seem to have lower returns than forecast…” Peter looked down at his papers guiltily “… but otherwise, we’re now just about trading at break-even again.”
“Is that it?”

“Well apart from the odd soul here and there that the Portuguese have converted in India which, given the amount of management time it takes us to deal with the official protests from Gautama’s people on each occasion, I’m not sure are actually making us a profit anyway, that is indeed it.”

“Well that sounds OK,” said Peter cautiously.

“Yes and no. Yes, we’ve stopped making a loss, which is good. But the only reserves are the premium we’ve been getting on the souls from Purgatory. I believe we’re going to discuss funding another American expedition later in the meeting. There’s just enough for that, but that’s it. Not another drop. If you want to pay for anything else, it’s off to talk to Croc Cayman.”

“And the pound of your fair flesh?” suggested Saul.

 

“An equal pound, I think you’ll find, Saul. Yours too that means,” retorted Mary.

 

“How much more stock have we got in Purgatory?”

 

“About another six months,” replied Peter. “We really could do with the strike ending soon.”

 

“I don’t think it’s far away, Saint,” said Saul. “You’ve seen the papers I suppose.”

 

“Indeed I have Saul. Let’s hope you’re right. Now perhaps we could take stock of where we are with our shareholders?” suggested Peter.

“Well, you know about Beelzebub. He’s pretty happy with how it’s going, and he’s got no objections at all to the American venture as far as I could tell. In fact…” Saul added carefully “… he seemed to want to please Scheherezade for some reason, and was encouraging us to conquer South America to stop the drugs trade.”

“Which we’re pretty sure is being carried on by our biggest shareholders,” observed Peter. “Do we have any plans to replace them?”

 

“Actually I think Gautama would like to buy a stake,” said Mary incautiously.

 

Saul watched the wheels turn in Peter’s head.

 

“That sounds an excellent idea,” said Peter. “It would be good to get some of his expertise in running a big operation, now that we’re expanding.”

 

“No more than ten percent,” said Saul firmly. “He’s an expert at turning small stakes into controlling interests.”

 

“How about the Carpenters,” Mary interjected hastily, before Peter could argue. “How did you get on there Peter?”

“Splendidly actually,” said Peter, puffing out his chest a little. “Mrs C was very impressed by my, er, the schism and how it was being handled. I don’t think she likes Jupiter very much, and basically she said she was happy for us to head for the Americas.”

“Just that?” asked Saul, disbelievingly.

 

“Well, actually, she said she was happy as long as I was leading it and you weren’t involved Saul,” said Peter.

 

“That sounds more authentic,” grunted Saul.

 

“And Mr C?” cut in Mary.

 

“The usual. He looked delighted when I thanked him for his Portuguese oak suggestion, but otherwise he just agreed with Virginia, as always.”

 

“So really, if it came to a vote, we could count on backing from the shareholders for expansion in the Americas then?” summarised Mary. “Informally yes,” said Peter. “I’m not sure we can record it in the minutes.”

“Oh come on Saint, stop being such a pedant. Of course we can. ‘Soundings have been taken with the following shareholders, who supported the scheme to expand in the Americas. As a result, this course of action now has majority shareholder support’,” improvised Saul. “Did you get that Moses, darling?” he chirped. Moses dourly scratched some notes.

“So, that brings us on to the key point for this meeting then,” boomed Peter looking at his notes. “What is our next step in the Americas?”

 

“It’s pretty obvious isn’t it Saint? Sort out a conquest of the south, using the same methods as our pilot in Mexico. What is there to discuss?”

 

“Well, I really think we should have a more formal discussion than that,” huffed Peter.

“Oh come on Peter, what are the options?” said Mary, becoming irritated by Peter’s moment of pomposity. “North or South seems to sum it up as far as I can see.”

“And there’s bugger all in the north except buffaloes and barbarians. And not many of them at that, darling,” said Saul.

“So really, there’s no option is there. South America has to be the next target. Let’s not forget that there’s only thirty years left until our 1550AD deadline,” reminded Mary.

“Yes,” agreed Saul. “It’s all very well having stopped making losses, but we’re supposed to be trading profitably by then and paying a nice fat dividend, otherwise our lovely shareholders can just shut up our shop, can’t they?”

“I still think we should evaluate our options more pr…” began Peter.

“And I’ve found another lovely chappie…” said Saul across him. “Pizarro, his name is. Francisco Pizarro,” Saul rolled the ‘r’s with relish. “Perfect for the job.”

Peter decided on a different tack. “Excellent Saul. Now, given how fragile our shareholder support is for this scheme, I really think we ought to follow Mrs Carpenter’s suggestion and let me handle the conquest.”
Mary just waited.

“Fine with me, Saint!” said Saul, to her surprise.

Peter was committed to arguing his case, despite having won already. “I mean, the pilot project in Mexico, that was R&D wasn’t it?” he said. “A conquest following the same model is special-operations-on-earth, and falls in my domain.”

“Absolutely Saint!” agreed Saul again. “I’ll hand our Pizarro chappie over to your boys and girls right after the meeting. ”

 

“Moses, for the minutes please…” began Peter.

“Peter to organise conquest of Incas,” finished Saul. “Got that Moses? By the way Saint, a part of the plan was to arrange a famine amongst the Incas before Pizarro lands.”

“Is it in the budget?” asked Peter.

 

“Oh absolutely. Maybe Mary could speak to Four Horsemen?” “Oh yes of course. You know I was at school with Famine, a really sweet girl actually. If you let me know the dates, I’ll call her after this meeting,” said Mary. After a few routine items, the meeting broke up.

 

“Are you well Saul?” said Mary after Peter had left.

 

“Never better,” said Saul cheerfully. “Peter’ll be much better at this Inca thing than I will.”

 

Mary arched her brows.

 

“Not to mention another lovely chappie called Almagro, Diego Almagro, that I’m keeping up my sleeve in case Peter mucks it up.”

“Ah,” said Mary.
“Ah,” said Saul in agreement. And one or two other things up my other sleeve, he thought to himself. “I’d better go hand over friend Pizarro to Peter’s tender mercies.”

Chapter 35

Mary had missed the news that morning, and had been obliged to listen to at least a dozen people greet her in the office with the information that the soulminers strike was over.

It seemed a momentous enough announcement to justify spending a few minutes in the boardroom, watching it on TV.

 

As she switched it on, a tearful looking Queen was pictured, speaking to her supporters gathered outside in the cold dawn morning.

 

“Listen to the wind blow,” she started softly. “Watch the sun rise.” “We’re in the shadows, damn the government, damn their lies,” she went on rather more strongly.

The newsreader came on to say that Ms Winter had resigned, and put her name forward for re-election to the post of General Secretary of S.O.U.L. The pictures cut back to Ms Winter.

“And if you don’t vote for me now, I will never lead you again.” The pictures cut to her supporters chanting for her to stand again and remain leader. “I can still hear you saying,” cried the Queen back to them, “we must one day break our chains.”

Despite the difficulties caused for Peter Saul and Mary Ltd by the strike, Mary had conceived a certain liking for the woman. She secretly rather hoped she might be re-elected.

“I can still hear you saying, we must one day break our chains,” she said softly to herself, thinking back to their last meeting.

Peter, frontling in, interrupted her reverie. Mary turned to him, rather irritated. If he had been less fat he would evidently have sidled in, but his present bulk limited his options.

Deng Xiao Ping was appearing on the screen to announce the end of energy rationing and the resumption of normal supplies of refined souls. Mary switched it off as Peter settled heavily in a chair.

“Trouble?” she said, reading his manner.

 

“Well, yes, actually Mary,” he said sheepishly. “Er, sorry to interrupt you by the way.”

 

This apology was sufficiently out of character for Mary to put away her irritation and say sympathetically “what’s up Peter?”

 

“It’s Pizarro,” he said.

 

Mary raised her eyebrows.

 

“He’s stuck,” said Peter with difficulty.

 

“Stuck?”

 

“Yes. On some bloody island in the Pacific called The Isle of the Gorgon. And he’s starving to death.”

 

“Have you told Saul this?” she asked.

 

Peter winced. “I couldn’t quite face it yet,” he said. “Er, maybe you could speak to him, see if has any ideas.”

Coward, thought Mary to herself. After you insisted on taking control of the project, now you can’t bring yourself to admit you’ve mucked it up can you? On the other hand, she could already hear Saul’s sarcastic tones and had to admit she wouldn’t like to be in Peter’s shoes. However, it had to be faced. Their whole future was bound up in this expedition that Peter had managed to strand starving on some isolated island.

“OK Peter, I’ll mention it to him, see if he’s got any ideas. Are you going to get back to trying to extract them?”

“Well yes, but honestly Mary, I’ve tried absolutely everything. I feel like there’s someone else making sure I never get anywhere with them,” he said downcast.

“Don’t be ridiculous Saint,” said Mary briskly. “How could there be? You get back to trying to rescue our project, and I’ll speak to Saul.”

 

“Thanks Mary,” said Peter, more subdued that she’d ever seen him, and he frontled back out.

Mary collected her thoughts. The end of the strike meant the end of any premium payments for souls in Purgatory. They were back to breaking even, just about. The conquest of the Incas was the absolute top priority. Despite her irritation with Peter’s apparent incompetence, her own hands were not completely clean either. She’d been unable to organise the famine they’d agreed on. She went to talk to Saul.

Chapter 36

Mary walked briskly and unannounced into Saul’s office. Saul jumped, looked up guiltily, and hastily tried to conceal his reading material under a folder. Mary saw the title before he had succeeded in hiding it. “Rustic Villas and Cottages in Iberia.” Looking around his office, she could see several other brochures piled up under more ordinary files. It appeared that, at this moment of crisis, Saul was planning his vacation.

“Going on holiday, Saul?” she asked sarcastically.

Saul looked rueful. “Well, I was maybe thinking of taking a short break. Just a weekend, you know, something like that.” He put the brochure down in front of him.

“I won’t sign Croesus’ holiday form. We’re too busy right now.”

 

“Nothing was farther from my mind Mary dear.” Mary looked disbelieving. “Anyway, what brings you here with such a head of steam?” asked Saul. “Peter’s mucked up Pizarro already,” she said.

 

“That was efficient of him darling,” smiled Saul. “I never thought he’d managed it quite so quickly.”

 

“Be serious Saul,” said Mary, exasperated.

 

“Oh but I am, darling, I am. How’s the famine going by the way?” he asked suddenly.

 

“How did you know? OK, yes I admit it. Mary’s mucked up the famine already,” she said, trying to put a bold front on it.

 

“That doesn’t sound like you, Mary. Mucked it up how?”

 

“Well, I spoke to Famine, she’s still as nice as she always was.”

 

“Said you needed a famine in South America,” continued Saul for her. “And she said, sorry, she was already engaged in that region. Would I like a death or a war, they were both free, but sorry, no famine.”

 

“Did she say where? Or who was paying?”

“Get real Saul. Of course she didn’t. I asked of course, but I knew the answer before she gave it. Client confidentiality. To be fair, Four Horsemen could hardly carry on without it, could they? She couldn’t possibly tell me.”

“So come on Mary dear, putting two and two together is your strength, not mine.”

 

“I need help with the addition sometimes Saul.”

 

“Let’s just run through it shall we? What’s Peter’s problem with Pizarro?”

 

“They’re stuck on some Island of the Gorgon, starving,” answered Mary. “Caught in a famine in fact?”

 

“Caught in a famine, yes,” grinned Mary. She was beginning to see where Saul was leading.

 

“And your friend Famine is busy with a job in South America?”

 

“So who has a particular interest in stopping our Conquest?” said Mary triumphantly.

Saul stepped in quickly. He really didn’t want Mary thinking that one through too carefully right now. His fingers stroked the Rustic Villas brochure nervously. “Our smuggling shareholders, evidently.”

“Could we find out?”

 

“Well, I seem to remember young Croesus has some contacts at Four Horsemen. And he does need a holiday,” said Saul.

 

“OK, Saul, you win, I’ll arrange for him to try and find out.”

 

Saul grinned. Hook line and sinker, he thought. “Marvellous Mary, I knew you would! How’s things going with Apollo by the way?”

 

“Wonderful, Saul, although we both seem to be really busy with work at the moment,” she replied, her face lighting up.

 

“Maybe you need a break too darling.”

 

“Fat chance of that right now.”

 

“Well, maybe when young Croesus is back at his desk then,” smiled Saul.

 

As Mary left, he picked up the brochures again. None of them were quite right. A sudden thought struck him, and he set off for Peter’s office.

Peter looked up guiltily as he entered. He was just wondering if Mary had spoken yet to Saul about the Island of the Gorgon fiasco when Saul startled him by saying “Peter, I’m a bit worried about Mary at the moment.”

“In what way?”

 

“Well, don’t you think she looks a bit strained?”

 

“Can’t say I’d noticed it.”

 

“She’s messed up doing the famine you know.”

 

“Has she?” Peter brightened visibly.

 

“Yes, it’s really very out of character. I’m quite worried, I think she needs a break, get away completely.”

 

“Oh absolutely.” Peter nodded vigorously. If Mary’s famine was going to distract from his Gorgon Island disaster, he was happy to agree.

 

“How, er, remote is your villa, what’s it called again?”

 

“Paradise. Well, maybe three quarters of a mile from the nearest place.”

 

“Peaceful then. Romantic?”

“I go there with my wife and three small children,” said Peter dryly. “Ah yes, fair point.” Saul thought of his occasional meetings with Mrs Fisher, and shuddered. “It could be romantic though, I take it, if there were just Mary and Apollo staying in it?”

“Well I suppose so. Do you want me to lend it to her?”

 

“Does it have a TV? Radio? Phone?”

 

“Of course it does, it’s fully equipped. Swimming pool, bar area…”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s got everything. But I’d like Mary to really get away from it all. Could you pop over and take the TV and radio out. Oh yes, and the phone?”

“Stock up the freezer too?”

“Well, if you could aim for the full Robinson Crusoe effect, that would certainly help, I think Saint. If you could assume she’ll have Apollo there with her, and leave some stuff for him too, that would be great.”

Peter thought briefly and then nodded. “OK, Saul, I’ll go over sometime in the next couple of weeks and sort it all out. Do you want me to tell Mary the good news?”

“Oh, no, Saint, I thought we could make it a surprise for her.”

 

“When do we tell her then?”

 

“Not quite sure yet. Why don’t you let me know when you’ve fixed the place up, and we’ll decide then?”

 

Chapter 37

Croesus reappeared in Mary’s office on Monday morning after his surprise week off, looking tanned and fit. He was followed closely by Saul, whom Mary eyed suspiciously. Saul seemed to have been to a surprising number of meetings offsite during the previous week, and Mary was sure she could detect a hint of sunburn in his usually sallow complexion.

“Hi Mary,” said Croesus enthusiastically. Saul grinned behind him. Evidently he knew what was coming. “Pay-dirt,” said Croesus, his mild Boston twang coming through.

Mary smiled back. “You found out about Four Horsemen then did you?” “I sure did Mary,” answered Croesus. “I know it’s not real relevant now, but they did the Black Death. But Gautama paid for it.”

 

“Gautama? Not Sonny and Shia?”

“Definitely Gautama. Apparently he was aiming to distract Sonny and Shia. Make them think there were easier pickings to their west. I think they’re putting him under some pressure in north India right now.”

“Interesting,” murmured Saul.

 

“And?” said Mary. While it was interesting, it wasn’t relevant to their immediate problems. The Black Death was ninety years ago now. “Famine?” grinned Croesus.

 

“Come on Croesus, give us the goods,” said Mary impatiently.

“Yes Ms Magdalene,” said Croesus cheekily. “The good lady Famine was engaged by one of our current shareholders to do a job on a certain island in the Pacific.”

“The Isle of the Gorgon?”

 

“You got it Mary.”

 

“And which shareholder?” said Mary, feeding him lines patiently. Ah well, she thought, it seems like he’s earned it.

 

“The biggest,” replied Croesus. “The Pantheon Alliance.”

 

“Jupiter and Saturn as ever was,” said Saul.

 

“So now we know,” said Mary. “The next question is: what can we do about it?”

 

“I think I might make a phone call, Mary darling,” said Saul.

 

“Who to?”

 

“Our Foreign Minister I think. She wants this conquest to go ahead, and she wants the cocaine smuggling stopped.”

 

“What can Scheherezade do?” asked Mary, knowing the answer before she’d finished asking. It seemed to be her day for playing the stooge.

 

“Lean on Four Horsemen.”

 

“Go to it Saul. And well done Croesus, that was a great piece of work.”

 

“Do I get a raise?” asked Croesus, half jokingly.

 

“I think that might have to wait until we’ve conquered the Incas,” said Mary with a smile.

 

“Can I use your phone Mary?” said Saul.

“Go right ahead, Saul,” she replied. “Croesus, you’ll excuse us I’m sure.” Croesus exited gracefully. Mary noticed Saul following with his eyes. “Concentrate on the matter in hand,” she said.

“I was,” said Saul. “But I suppose you mean this hand,” he gestured with the handset. He dialled a number written on a small card that he extracted from an inside pocket, and asked for the Foreign Minister.

“Saul Tarsus, of Peter Saul and Mary Limited,” he replied to a question from the other end, and set the phone to conference mode.

 

“Saul Tarsus,” came the voice of Scheherezade over the speaker, still hypnotic despite the metallic effect of the phone. “How can I be of assistance?” Saul explained that their conquest of South America had been halted by a famine, almost certainly arranged by Jupiter and Saturn.

 

“What would you like me to do, Saul?”

Mary raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know you were on first-name terms,” she whispered. Saul waved her down. He was listening intently, and thought he could hear a male voice in the murmuring in background with a Texan accent.

“Well, the activities of Four Horseman are regulated by your Ministry, I think,” he began.

 

“It is called OFPOX, the Regulator covering apocalyptic activities external to the Great Planes.”

“Perhaps OFPOX could suggest to Four Horsemen that the activities of Famine in South America might be in contravention of the regulatory framework governing their activities,” prompted Saul.

“I believe it could,” came the reply. “You will receive some news later today. Goodbye Saul, and thank you for the information.”

 

The phone went dead. Saul and Mary looked at each other.

 

“Well, that seemed promising enough. Not much else to do now but wait, is there?” said Mary

 

“Not much else to do? Perhaps you could think about taking that break then Mary dear, now Croesus has returned safely from his mission.”

Mary sighed. “It would be lovely. Maybe I’ll give Apollo a call and see if he stands any chance of getting away in the near future. Any suggestions about where we could go?”
“Not back to Delphi?” asked Saul.

“It was lovely there. But I’d quite like to see how we get on somewhere more neutral, I suppose,” answered Mary, half to herself.

“I’ll put my mind to it,” said Saul. “I’ve read enough brochures myself recently, as you discovered. I’ll have another look, see if I can come up with anything that might suit you.”

“That’s great Saul, thanks. Better get back down to work if I’m to stand any chance of getting away in the near future.”

Mary had a busy day at her desk. It was mid-afternoon before she was interrupted by Moses. “There is a call from Four Horsemen for you, Ms Magdalene,” he said.

“Put it through. Mary M…”

 

“Mary, how lovely to speak to you,” came Famine’s voice.

 

“Famine, how are you darling? How’s it going?”

 

“We’re going great guns, Mary, as always. I hear marvellous things about Peter Saul and Mary too, still.”

 

“We’re doing OK I guess,” said Mary.

 

“Anyway, Mary, you called me a while back about a job you wanted doing in South America. Are you still interested?”

 

“You said you couldn’t do it.”

“No, I had another client. Can’t tell you who. But, to be honest, we’ve had the regulator on to us, warning us off the job. I don’t know what we’re going to tell the client. Not good for our reputation. But I’ve had to drop it like a hot coal.”

“OFPOX? I thought they were rather toothless actually, Famine love.” “Not this time sweetheart. Fair gave me the creeps. Even Death was a bit more subdued than usual. Anyway, do you still want your job doing?”

“I’m not sure right now, Famine love, I’ll have to take it back and see if we’re still interested. I’ll try and call you back, OK? Are you going to the reunion next year?”

“I’m not sure yet. Depends on work I suppose. Call me back Mary, let me know. Bye for now.”

 

At that moment Peter hurried in. “Mary, did you tell Saul about me getting Pizarro stuck on the Isle of the Gorgon?”

Mary was wondering how to answer his, when Peter rushed on. “Well don’t bother, I’ve had a brilliant bit of news. His partner, err, Almagro I think he’s called, has got a ship through, and they’re off to recruit another expedition!”

“That’s good news Peter.”

 

“Thanks. Look, I’m going to call a Project team meeting tomorrow to review progress and agree the next steps. I take it you and your people can make it?”

 

“I’m sure we’ll fit it in, Peter,” said Mary. “It is fairly important after all.” “Great. Must dash. See you tomorrow.” Peter hurried out, breathing heavily.

 

Chapter 38

As usual, Peter had assembled every plausible manager in the company for his Project Progress meeting. Carefully prepared reports were distributed in bound packs around the table in the boardroom. Peter sat at one end, reading from his report. As well as Saul and Mary, Croesus and Midas from Mary’s department, most of Peter’s managers, and even a few of Saul’s senior staff were ranged around the table. Peter had even found an excuse to invite Moses, who sat scowling at the foot.

He was explaining that Pizarro, having returned to Panama assisted by his partner, had re-equipped his expedition and was now marching into the interior of Peru. So far, the locals had apparently been accommodating. Peter drew attention knowledgeably to the similarities with Cortes’ conquest of Mexico.

“How many men in Pizarro’s force, Peter?” asked Saul genially.

 

“A hundred and sixty-four,” answered Peter proudly, and was about to continue his report when a strangled noise from Saul made him look up again.

 

“Jesus Christ!” shrieked Saul.

 

There was a dead-silence around the table. By convention, no one ever, ever, mentioned that name in Peter Saul and Mary Limited.

 

“Explain yourself Saul,” said Peter, leaning back and folding his arms.

Saul had regained command of himself. “My apologies for my language boys and girls,” he said looking around the table. “Peter, I’m really not convinced that trying to conquer an empire many times the size of the one we had to deal with in Mexico using only about a quarter of the troops is necessarily a recipe for success,” he continued mildly.

“But we’re following an already proven concept, and Mary, you must agree we need to economise wherever possible,” replied Peter.

“Yes, wherever possible. But surely… oh never mind,” said Saul, still privately horrified by what Peter had done. “A hundred and sixty-four men. Right. And they’ve reached, where did you say?”

Mary watched aghast. Another argument? And this time in front of half the staff. Morale would plummet. Quite apart from Peter’s stupidity. How on earth could he have decided to go with such a small force? She knew the answer of course. Peter was determined to prove he could do better than Saul. Bloody men, she thought, as she stepped in to cool things down.

“Peter’s already said that they’ve reached Tumbes, Saul,” she said.

“Right Mary, yes of course,” said Saul. “Sorry Peter, I missed that bit I think,” he continued humbly. Don’t overdo it, thought Mary, seeing Peter bridle again.

“Well, the question I suppose is, can we improve the chances of success a bit. ‘Mitigate some project risks’”, he said rather pointedly to Peter, deliberately using the jargon.

“Well this is a perfectly good moment to review the project risk strategy Saul,” said Peter thinly.

“I think we need to reduce the odds a little, that’s all,” said Saul. “I propose that we engage the services of Four Horsemen, and more particularly Pestilence as soon as possible.”

“And where is the money for that going to come from?” said Peter.

Mary looked troubled. She nodded at Midas, who leaned across the table and handed her a folder. “There’s only one source of funds available to us at present,” she began. “We will have to take advantage of the facility offered to us by Cayman and Swiss.”

She gathered herself. “Do we have agreement that we need to follow Saul’s suggestion?”

 

“Perhaps we could take this offline?” threw in Peter.

 

Mary cringed as she saw Saul about to rise to Peter’s bullshit-bingo prize winner. She stepped in again quickly.

“I think perhaps the financial situation makes this a Board decision,” she said firmly, taking command. “Moses, would you be kind enough to arrange an emergency Board meeting, starting in about,” she glanced at the clock, “fifteen minutes time.”

Moses nodded and rose to leave.

 

“Thank you all for your time this morning,” continued Mary. “I’m sure Peter will email you all with an update after the Board discussions.”

There was a general shuffling of chairs. Peter was fuming at the end of the table. Rising suddenly, he was first to the door. “See you in a quarter of an hour,” he said, the falseness of his smile evident to everyone in the room.

Soon Mary and Saul were the only ones left. Saul looked apologetic. “Sorry Mary darling, thank you for rescuing me. But honestly, I could strangle Peter. I’d better go call Pestilence hadn’t I, and get a price. Back shortly.”

Chapter 39

The atmosphere in the Board room was strained. Mary had privately spoken to Moses, and suggested he would not be needed. It was unlikely to be a very formal meeting.

Peter was first back in. “Bloody Saul,” he began. “He’s read the damn report hasn’t he? It’s quite clear how many men are involved. If he really wants to object like that, why can’t he do it discretely in my office?”

“Er, where in the report does it mention the hundred and sixty-four men Peter?” asked Mary sweetly.

 

“Haven’t you read it?”

 

“Of course I have. And I couldn’t find any mention of the size of the army,” she said more firmly. “Perhaps you could show me?”

Peter was checkmated. He had not mentioned it deliberately, not wanting to spoil the glory later when he could show them all he had conquered the Incas more quickly and economically than Saul had dealt with the Aztecs. But Mary always read everything sent to her meticulously. She knew it wasn’t there. There was no point in him trying to pretend it was.

“Well, I must have left it out,” he said petulantly. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter that much does it?”

“Well….” began Mary, wondering where to start. “I’m not really convinced you’ve sent a big enough force either. Although I wouldn’t perhaps have expressed it like Saul did,” she added with a smile.

“Exactly,” bristled Peter, before the penny dropped. His shoulders slumped slightly. “So you agree with Saul?” he said meekly.

 

“Well, yes Peter, actually I do. Never mind,” said Mary brightly, “I think his Pestilence idea’s a good one actually.”

 

“Well I’m not so sure…” began Peter.

 

“Let’s go with it shall we,” said Mary flatly. Peter looked hard at her for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders.

 

Saul reappeared. “I got hold of Pestilence, and she’s given me a quote,” he said gloomily.

 

“Go on, how much?” asked Mary, reading the signs.

 

“Two million,” said Saul quietly. Mary held her head in her hands. Peter brightened briefly. “Well I really don’t think a company in our situation can possibly afford…” he blustered.

“I’ll get on to Croc Cayman and borrow the money,” said Mary, cutting though him. “Better decide which part of your body you fancy having him carve his pound of flesh from,” she added, attempting to brighten the mood.

Saul was eyeing Peter up as if selecting his preferred spot for Croc. Instead he launched a barb of his own. “Now, the next thing, we need, I think, is some direct support for Pizarro on the ground,” he began.

“Oh no,” said Peter. “I’m not…”

 

“That sounds a splendid idea Saul,” said Mary. “That should certainly help it all along.”

 

“Just what I thought darlings,” cried Saul, recovering his normal manner. “Now Peter, a Personal Manifestation from you should be just the thing.” “I hate doing Manifestations,” puffed Peter. “What if it goes wrong and I get killed? It doesn’t exactly look like a walk in the park, this Pizarro expedition.”

 

“I’m sure we’ll pick your soul up and recycle you in the usual way,” replied Saul patronisingly.

 

“Why don’t you go yourself, since you’re so keen on the idea?” complained Peter sourly.

 

“Well, I’ve found the perfect job actually, and I think it’s just so you, Saint,” said Saul, his eyes twinkling.

 

“What?”

“The expedition needs a priest. I really don’t think a gay vicar’s going to cut it with this Pizarro chappie, is it? And you do the Vicar of Christ bit so well Peter darling. Born to the role you were.”

“My wife will go mental if I’m away on a Manifestation at the moment!” wailed Peter.

 

“That’s life in a blue suit for you,” said Saul coldly. “Did you manage to call Hearts-of-Gold up by the way?” he added pointedly. Peter subsided rapidly.

 

“Good, that’s settled then,” said Mary. “What’s the priest called, by the way?”

“Friar Vicente Valverde,” said Saul, checking his notes. “Oh yes,” he muttered to himself as he flicked over another page. “Now then Mary,” he began in a kinder tone. “Peter and I have been worrying about you, darling. We really do think you should take a break once you’ve sorted out the facility with Croc Cayman. After all, there’ll be a mountain of work for you do deal with integrating South America in with our accounts once we’ve conquered it. And we’ve found the perfect place, haven’t we Peter?” he finished meaningfully.

“We have indeed,” said Peter proudly. “Paradise Villa is at your disposal Mary,” he announced, taking his keys from his belt, removing a large golden one, and pushing it across the table towards Mary. “And your friend Apollo’s, of course.”

Mary was touched, and it showed. “Well, I really don’t know what to say. It’s really very kind of you Peter. And you Saul, for arranging it. I’d love a break with Apollo at Paradise. But are you sure it’s sensible for me to be away at the moment, just when we’re so busy?”

“Oh, I’m sure Peter and I will cope,” said Saul. “And don’t forget, we’ll both need a break once this Inca thing is over, I’m sure. Certainly Peter will after his manifestation. You’re doing us a favour going now, then you can cover for us when you get back, can’t you?”

“Well actually…” began Peter but Saul overrode him.

 

“Go on Mary, go and call Apollo, and then Croc Cayman. In that order!” said Saul, in a mock-bullying tone.

Mary considered continuing to protest. Professionally, she knew she probably ought not to leave the office at such an important time. But on the other hand, there was Apollo. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly as she pictured him. She really would like to spend some more time with him, and Peter’s villa was perfect. It would be neutral territory, just like she’d wanted. “OK Saul,” she said smiling. “I’m on my way. And thank you again, Peter, it’s really wonderful of you.” Peter looked smugly back as she strode out of the room.

Once she was gone, he turned on Saul. “Leaving aside the issue that you’re a complete bastard just for a moment,” he said, “is it really sensible to have Mary out of the office just when I’ve got to be away myself doing this Manifestation you’ve set me up for? I went along with it just now, but I’m really not too happy with two of us being out of the office at the same time at such a critical juncture.”

“I think you’re missing the point, Saint.”

 

“In what way am I missing the point?” asked Peter crossly.

 

“Well, it wasn’t just numbers of soldiers that was missing from your beautifully presented project plan.”

 

“Explain yourself Saul.”

 

“Look. How did we conquer Mexico and the Aztecs quite so easily?” “Guided Cortes carefully and ran into a bit of luck with divisions amongst the Aztecs and prophecies and that sort of thing,” answered Peter.

“OK. Well, we’re going to guide Pizarro carefully. Or rather you are as Friar Vicente. That’s the first part ticked off. What about the divisions and prophecies and general bad luck on the other team?”

“I’ve already taken your point Saul,” said Peter, annoyed. He did not care for being patronised at any time, and especially not by Saul. “We’re going to pay for Pestilence to cause the chaos.”

“Good, that’s point two. What else did we do in Mexico?”

 

“I’m not an infant, Saul.”

“OK, then. The third thing we did was to distract their soulbrokers, didn’t we. With cousin Salima. Which,” added Saul acidly, “is why I didn’t raise the point while Mary was still here.”

“No need to rub it in more than you have done already. Don’t think I missed you mentioning my calling up Hearts-of-Gold.”

 

“So who is the Incas’ soulbroker?” persisted Saul.

 

“Well, Hearts-of-Gold, obviously. So presumably Mr Coatl or whatever his name is, is still being distracted.”

 

“Wrong. What do the Incas worship?”

 

“Well, just like the Aztecs I thought. The usual bronze-age pantheistic mixture,” answered Peter defensively.

 

“You really haven’t done your homework properly for this project Saint, darling. Most unlike you actually. They worship the sun.”

“Sun-worshippers?” The penny dropped. “Sun-worshippers! Ah, I see.” “Exactly. Their soulbroker is none other than Apollo, chairman and managing director of Sunworshippers Worldwide Inc. Better known to you and me, Saint, as Mary’s latest squeeze.”

“And you’re going to get Mary to distract him? She isn’t going to like it when she finds out Saul.”

 

“She isn’t going to find out. You did take out the television and radio from your villa as I suggested, didn’t you?”

 

“Fortunately, yes. But I still think you should tell her,” said Peter firmly.

 

“And tear her loyalties between Apollo and this company? Do be sensible, Saint.”

 

“I hope you’ll take full responsibility for this Saul,” continued Peter severely. “Yes, I’ll take full responsibility Saint,” said Saul heavily. “And now don’t you think you’d better go into training for the priesthood?”

“Oh, it’ll just be the usual,” said Peter moodily. “As you’ve already pointed out, I’ve done it enough times before. It won’t have changed much since last time. Anyway, there’s something much more urgent I need to do first.”

“What’s that?”

 

“Work out how to explain to my wife why I’m going to have to be away on business just now. She’s already hopping about the villa.”

 

“Didn’t you tell her?” asked Saul, astonished that Peter had managed to do something without referring it to the dreaded Mrs Fisher.

 

“No. I didn’t think I’d need to, we weren’t planning on visiting at the moment, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get away from the office.” “So how did she find out?”

 

“I didn’t think it through properly, and arrived home with an armful of TV and radio one evening, didn’t I?” said Peter bitterly, and walked out.

 

Chapter 40

Saul pulled up outside the offices of Four Horsemen. It was a rather forbidding stone building, decorated with gargoyles and statues. He was just admiring a splendid looking beast with seven heads and ten horns when, to his alarm, the woman sitting on it dismounted and walked over to him.

He was about to climb hurriedly back into his car when he realised that the woman was none other than Pestilence.

 

“Good grief, Pestilence darling, is that really necessary?”

 

“Let’s say it impresses the clients. Welcome to Four Horsemen, Saul.”

A door opened silently for them and they walked in. Pestilence showed him into an office decorated with pictures of electron-microscope close-ups of various viruses and asked her assistant to fetch Saul a coffee.

“I’ll just go change if you don’t mind. Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Saul studied her briefly on her return. The loose greek robes she had worn on the statue had been discarded and replaced by a tight-fitting black suit. She was tall, very white skinned, with long dark black hair, and bright red lipstick and nails. Saul had been about to take an apple from the fruit bowl on the table when he thought better of it. It reminded him of Livia’s grapes.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” he intoned. “Who is the fairest of them all?”

 

“You don’t miss anything do you Saul,” observed Pestilence.

 

“Is the poison queen image really necessary?”

 

“Like the statues, Saul, it impresses the clients. It convinces them I mean business. Especially if they happen to have seen me singing.”

 

“Fantastic gig on election night, darling.”

 

“Thank you Saul. Now, you wanted to talk about a job in South America I believe?”

 

Saul explained his requirement. Pestilence considered for a moment.

“I think the best option would be a smallpox plague,” she said. “There’ll be no natural immunity there, so you should get the kind of death-rate you’re looking for. And it’ll be easy to explain historically as well, so there’ll be no problem with the Regulators.”

“OFPOX you mean?”

“Yes. They’ve become a lot stricter recently about unhistorical cataclysms. We got fined quite heavily when War did the Genghis Khan job. The Regulator argued that it was unrealistic to have expected him to have covered the distance from Mongolia to Hungary without outside aid.”

“Smallpox it is then. You mentioned two million credos over the phone? How about a discount as I’m such an old friend.”

 

“Never mix business and pleasure Saul. Two million. Take it or leave it.”

Saul pretended to consider. He had no choice. And he knew that Pestilence knew he had no choice. Four Horsemen would certainly have been monitoring anything as significant as a continental conquest very closely indeed, hoping for a business opportunity. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t a bad price.

“I’d like to be sure the plague takes out the current emperor,” he said tentatively.

 

“We don’t guarantee specific victims with a Pestilence attack, Saul. I assumed you’d know that.”

 

Saul did know that. He had just been hoping to get a little extra for the money.

“So, what would it take to guarantee he’s a victim?”
“Named individuals are Death, not Pestilence. Shall I ask him to join us?” suggested Pestilence. Saul nodded, and went to the door and spoke briefly to her assistant.

Momentarily the door opened, and a youngish looking man joined them. He had dyed black hair, green fingernails, a stud through his lower lip and wore a fading black T-shirt that looked as if he had owned it for several years, and tight black jeans. Only the reaper earrings hinted at his occupation. Having met Death before, Saul was unfazed by his artschool-student appearance.

“Wotcha Saul,” said Death.

 

“How’s it going, Death?” replied Saul.

“Pretty good, mate, not bad at all. I understand you want a certain emperor geezer taken out?” Unlike Pestilence, Death had cultivated his cockney twang as part of his image. Presumably it must impress the clients too, thought Saul. Death was certainly never short of work.

Saul repeated his requirements.

 

“Name?” asked Death crisply.

 

Saul checked his notes. “Wayna Capac, otherwise known as the Great Inca, Lord of the Four Quarters.”

 

Death wrote it down carefully. “Bronze-age civilisation?” Saul nodded in reply.

 

“Pestilence doing a full plague?”

 

“Yes” agreed Saul.

 

“Which one?”

 

“Smallpox,” answered Pestilence.

 

“Do you want insurance against injury to third parties?”

 

“Don’t think so.”

 

“Is that yes or no, mate?”

 

“No then,” said Saul. “Fire? Accidental damage?”

 

“No,” replied Saul, rather bemused by these options. “Sounds pretty straightforward then mate. When do you need it doing?”

 

“As soon as possible.”

 

“Does that mean now, or do you want it done retrospective like? Retro’s extra,” added Death rather insolently.

 

“I think retrospective might be quite a good idea actually, Death darling,” said Saul.

 

“OK guv, give me 10 minutes and I’ll do you a quote,” said Death, rising lazily and heading for the door.

 

“He hasn’t changed then?” observed Saul when he had left.

 

“As you see,” replied Pestilence. “But his work’s fantastic, his clients love him, and he generates no end of repeat business.”

 

They chatted inconsequentially for a few minutes before the door reopened and Death lounged back in. He slid a piece of paper in front of Pestilence.

“Costings are all there, sweetheart. He’s your client,” he nodded towards Saul, “so I’ll leave you to fix the price with him. Pretty standard job I reckon mate,” he said to Saul. He made for the exit again. “Let me know when you’ve sorted it, and I’ll get straight on with it,” he said, putting his head round the door a second after he had left.

“Well?” asked Saul.

 

“Another million and a half,” replied Pestilence watching him carefully.

 

Saul smothered his horror. He’d expected it to be considerably cheaper. “Don’t you do a buy one get one free deal?” he asked brightly.

 

“Very amusing Saul.”

 

“Well, I’m sorry, but I think I might have to manage without the Death then,” said Saul, trying to sound definite.

 

Pestilence smiled. Saul realised he was being wound up. “Do you always do business like that?”

 

“No Saul, but you’re an old friend, as you say. We’ll do it for two and three quarters combined.”

 

“Two and a half?” tried Saul hopefully.

 

“Two and three quarters,” said Pestilence with finality.

Saul stretched out his hand to shake on the deal. On the one hand it was a good price. On the other he knew why he was getting the reduction. It had nothing to do with being an old friend. Pestilence, he suspected, was confident he’d have to come back for additional work shortly. She was probably right.

Chapter 41

Mary was feeling rather harassed when Saul appeared in her doorway. She had managed to reach an agreement with Cayman & Swiss for a loan to cover the cost of Pestilence, after a painful negotiation. Now she was trying to get a mountain of paperwork in some sort of fit state to leave before she went on holiday. She was less than pleased when Saul explained what he wanted.

“Another three quarters of a million credos? Oh god, Saul, do you have any idea what I went through to get Croc to agree to the two million you asked for?”

“I’m terribly sorry, darling,” said Saul, “but the more I thought about it, the more I still think this expedition needs every assistance it can get. A hundred and sixty-four men! Dear oh dear.”

“Couldn’t you have got it cheaper?”

 

“She gave me a huge discount as it is Mary, dear. I don’t think I could have got it for any less. Not with the retrospective option in it too.”

 

“Do we really need that?”

 

“Perhaps we should ask Peter. Now he’s going himself I think he feels he needs all the help we can give him.”

 

“He’s certainly spending a lot of time in the gents.”

 

“I’m not sure whether he’s more frightened by doing the Manifestation or by talking to his wife, actually.”

“OK, OK, there’s no need to ask Peter. With his bowels on the line, I know which way he’ll vote. I’d better get back on to Croc and see I can squeeze another drop or two out of him. He’ll think I’m an idiot though, fixing a loan and then coming back for more a couple of hours later. I’ll call you back in a bit.”

“Marvellous darling, I’ll be waiting. By the way, have you fixed the dates for your stay in Paradise yet?”

Mary gestured to the mounds of folders on her desk. “What does it look like? I might just get all this straight before I leave. Just don’t distract Croesus for the next couple of weeks.”

“Me?” said Saul with mock innocence as he left.

 

With a deep sigh, Mary picked up the phone again. “I’d like to speak to Charles Cayman please. Mary Magdalene from Peter Saul and Mary.”

 

She was put through immediately. “What find I here? Fair Mary’s counterfeit,” came Croc’s opening greeting.

 

“No, it really is me again Croc. I know we’ve only just fixed our deal, but it turns out we need a bit more.”

 

“Madam, you have bereft me of all words,” he answered.

 

“Three quarters of a million,” she said straight out.

 

“Thou stick’st a dagger in me. I shall never see my gold again. Three quarters of a million credos at a sitting?”

 

Mary laughed despite herself. “Come on Croc, three quarters of a million at the same terms. You know we’re good for that much more.”

 

“On what compulsion must I, tell me that?”

Mary steeled herself. Why not? It had worked on the Winter woman. Let’s go for it. “The quality of lending is not strained,” she began. “It droppeth as the gentle rain upon the soulbrokers beneath.”

She heard the agreement in Croc’s voice as he began to reply, and silently heaved a sigh of relief. Finally the deal was done. She called Saul back.

 

“I got it Saul,” she said.

 

“That’s absolutely brilliant, Mary,” he said. “You’ve really earned that holiday today.”

“Thanks Saul. But Croc made it very clear that there’s absolutely no more available. He was reluctant enough to give us this. Don’t spend any more money while I’m gone, is that clear?”

“How’s Apollo?” replied Saul.

 

“Fantastic Saul, but don’t change the subject. No more spending.” “Got it darling. No more spending at any cost. Or is that any price?” said Saul mockingly putting down the phone.

 

“Nnnngggh!” squeaked Mary in exasperation through clenched teeth, before returning to her paperwork.

 

Chapter 42

Saul wanted to catch up with Peter before he went off to do his Manifestation. He headed briskly up the stairway to heaven. At the top, he decided to pop into the gents on his way and turned and headed swiftly through the doorway.

Inside was Peter, standing in front of the mirror, dressed in the full costume of a sixteenth century Friar, looking unhappy. Hearing the door, he tried to dive unseen back into a cubicle, but Saul was too quick for him.

“Where are Robin Hood and Little John?”

 

“Very funny Saul. It’s extremely uncomfortable, I can tell you. Not to mention draughty. And this one’s too tight.”

 

“Oh but it’s so you, Saint darling. Really it is,” said Saul, laying the camp on heavily.

 

“Did you want me?” asked Peter crossly.

“Yes I did, as a matter of fact,” said Saul, desperately trying to maintain a serious expression on his face. “It’s about your taxes. I got a message from Prince John saying you’re way behind and…” he was unable to carry on, and giggled.

Peter waited for him to finish.

“No really I did I want to talk to you,” said Saul, getting a grip on himself. “I’ll just use the facilities, and then meet you in your office when you’ve changed. I just want to make sure we’ve covered off everything before you have to leave.”

“OK,” said Peter huffily, and disappeared into a cubicle. There was the sound of a protracted struggle from within, like a heffalump trapped in an undersized honeypot.

Sniggering to himself, Saul went to wait in Peter’s office. Some considerable while later, Peter reappeared, rather red in the face, but dressed in his normal office attire.

“I was just about to organise a rescue mission for you Saint.”

 

“Here, or down on Earth?” demanded Peter, still cross.

 

“Do you think you’ll need it down on Earth then?”

“Now I’ve studied the situation on the ground in detail during my reconnaissance, I’m sure I’ll need it. Here look, I’ve filled in my recycling permits ready for you to sign.” He pushed some papers over to Saul. They were the official forms exempting his soul from refining if he should accidentally be killed during his Manifestation. Another form allowed him to reoccupy his existing body without waiting for the normal quarantine period. Saul countersigned them, and handed them back expressionlessly.

“Isn’t there something else we could do?” asked Peter rather plaintively.

 

“How about a civil war?”

“Anything if it helps. Don’t you think it might be overdoing it though. We’ve already got Pestilence and Death on the job. Maybe we could ask Famine to come back and go for a full house?”

“Since you’re going to have to live off the land while you’re down there, Saint darling, I don’t think Famine’s quite what you want at the moment.” “OK, perhaps not. What did you have in mind for the war?”

 

“I’m not sure yet. I thought I might call Four Horsemen again, and see if they can suggest anything. Mind if I use your phone?”

 

“Go ahead,” said Peter, folding his arms and sitting back to watch Saul make the call.

“Pestilence darling, how nice to talk to you again…. No no, no complaints, the smallpox and the death of Wayna whatsit are going fine as far as I know. Look I was ringing about maybe getting War involved… Yes, yes, I know it’s never a cheap option… Yes, yes, put him on.”

Saul turned to Peter. “Shall I put him on speaker?” Peter nodded.

 

“I’ve got Peter Fisher, our Operations Director here with me,” he said into the microphone.

 

“Hi Saul, good day to you Peter,” came the transatlantic basso drawl of War. “Hi Peter,” they heard Pestilence echo.

 

“How can I be of service then Saul?” said War.

 

“Well, I was wondering if we could maybe do a civil war as well as our other projects in South America,” said Saul tentatively.

 

“Do you want that seamlessly integrated with our other activities, Saul?” asked Pestilence crisply.

 

“Well, I suppose so…” began Saul when Peter cut across him “Yes please.” “Retrospective as well?” persisted Pestilence.

 

“Yes to that too,” answered Peter. “If not sooner,” he added in an aside to Saul.

 

“One moment please,” they heard the speaker click off.

 

After a minute of so, War’s rumbling voice came back on the line. “We think the best bet for you guys would be a war of succession. How does that sound?”

 

“Go on,” said Saul encouragingly.

“Has this guy Death’s doing in for you - Wayna Capac is it?,” said War with some difficulty over the unusual syllables “has he got any heirs you guys know of?”

Peter looked on his PC. “Can you hear me? Yes, two, it seems, Atahuallpa and Huascar.”

 

“You spell those for me please Peter,” came War’s drawl. “I ain’t so good with foreign names.”

 

Peter spelled them out.

 

“OK fine, I can do you a swell civil war of succession with that. Pestilence, you wanna tell them the bad news?”

 

“Three million, Saul,” said Pestilence.

 

Saul and Peter looked at each other.

 

“Three?” asked Peter in strangled tones.

 

“Three,” confirmed Pestilence.

 

“Sestertii or Credos?” tried Peter.

 

“Credos,” answered Pestilence flatly.

 

“Take it or leave it guys,” drawled War.

 

“Er, we’ll have to get back to you,” said Saul faintly. They finished the call. “Mary’ll go ape,” said Peter.

 

“She won’t,” said Saul. “She won’t because we won’t get the money. She’s made that quite clear to me. There’s no point in even asking her.” “Oh. Oh dear,” said Peter, thinking of his imminent Manifestation.

 

Saul brightened suddenly. “Don’t worry Saint. I think I might be able to fix it.” He rose abruptly. “I’ll be back,” he called over his shoulder hurrying out.

Peter looked puzzledly after him, then with a grunt turned back to a large suitcase hidden behind his desk. It was full of priests’ costumes. He replaced the one he’d draped over his chair, extracted another, and headed disconsolately back to the toilets.

Chapter 43

Saul hurried back to his office, hunted in an inside pocket for a carefully preserved card, and picked up the telephone. A minute or two later he was connected.

“Good afternoon, Mr Tarsus, how can I be of assistance?” asked a still, small voice of calm. It seemed to carry and fill the space, even over the telephone.

“Er, good afternoon Mrs Augustus,” replied Saul evenly. “You once promised me to return a favour if you could?”

 

“Indeed Mr Tarsus.” There was a pause, which Saul, uncharacteristically, struggled to fill.

 

Recovering, he explained what he wanted.

 

“Augustus is extremely grateful for your assistance with the soulminers strike, Mr Tarsus,” said Livia.

 

Saul waited.

 

“It will be as you request. Please remain by this number, and wait for a call. Goodbye Mr Tarsus.”

 

What it must be like to have that kind of power, he thought wonderingly, as he paced the room nervously, waiting for the phone to ring.

After a tense twenty minutes the phone rang. He answered and a voice said simply. “Mr Cayman’s compliments, Mr Tarsus, and 3 million credos, advanced for ten years at nought percent, interest will be in your account at 4pm. We will call your Finance Director to confirm the details shortly.”

Saul thought briefly, glanced at his watch, and said “could you make that call at 3:30pm exactly please?”

 

“Certainly Mr Tarsus. Fifteen thirty hours, call to Ms Magdalene on the usual number.”

After waiting ten minutes or so, Saul hurried out and over to Mary’s office, knocked, and went in without answering. She looked up with some irritation. “I’m rather busy Saul,” she said.

“Peter and I have been talking some more about the Conquest,” he said.

 

“And?”

“We’ve agreed that we need to do a civil war as well,” went on Saul rather breathlessly. “We’ve just been on to Four Horsemen, and they’ve quoted us a price of three million.”

“Saul, I’m very busy right now, I really can’t waste time at the moment. I’ve told you already. No more spending.”

 

The phone rang.

 

“Answer it,” said Saul.

Mary gave him a foul look, and took the call. After listening briefly, she paled and sat down. “Nought percent for ten years?... Three million…. Yes, yes, it’s absolutely fine, please go ahead with the transfer.”

Putting the phone back down, she turned to Saul who was looking exceedingly smug. “How on earth did you manage to fix that?” she asked. “Interest free? I can hardly believe it.”

“Friends in high places, darling, friends in high places. And now, I think, Mary, you can take your holiday with a clear conscience. I’ll leave you to your paperwork.”

“Thanks Saul,” she said simply.

 

“Enjoy yourself, darling,” said Saul, recovering his usual manner. “Have a great time with Apollo.”

 

Mary smiled broadly at him as he headed out to tell Peter the good news.

 

Chapter 44

 

Saul caught up with Peter in the reception lobby, waiting morosely for a taxi.

 

“Not changed?” he asked, eyeing up Peter’s usual suit. “The Friar gear’s in here,” answered Peter, gesturing at a large, medieval looking trunk. “I thought I’d change in the etherjet terminal.”

 

“Did you find an outfit that fitted better?” asked Saul with a twinkle.

 

“Yes, but I still couldn’t face sitting in a taxi in full conquistador-priest’s rig. I’ll leave the suit with left-luggage.”

“I brought you a present to help you on your trip, actually,” said Saul, reaching into an inside pocket. He was suddenly struck by a thought, and stopped. “What’s the mobile reception like at your villa?” he asked.

Peter looked confused by the abrupt change of subject, but answered after a short pause. “Terrible. I’ve written to complain about it at least twice and…” He stopped suddenly, realising what Saul was getting at. “Dreadful, fortunately. The whole area’s dreadful. Too isolated for the mobile companies to bother providing decent coverage. There’s no chance of Mary getting called, if that’s what you mean.”

“Thank heavens for that. I only just thought of it. Does that mean Apollo’s mobile won’t work either?”

 

“No chance.”

 

“Excellent. Anyway, I found this for you.” He extracted a small silver crucifix attached to a silver chain.

 

Peter looked baffled. “Er thanks Saul, but I’ve already got a crucifix, obviously. I could hardly do the job without one.”

“Not like this one you haven’t,” said Saul and touched the ruby at the centre of the cross. Immediately the crucifix flipped open to reveal a small keyboard and display.

“It’s a Noetherian Ring,” said Saul in response to Peter’s eyebrows. “The very latest gadget. It took me ages to find one shaped like a crucifix mind you.”

 

“What does it do?”

 

“Well, I’m hardly the man to ask, but I understand it connects you from Earth, across the Ether, to the mobile networks here on the Great Planes.”

 

“So it’s a mobile that works from Earth?”

“Absolutely, darling. Mind you, I don’t think they work terribly well yet, the technology’s too new. They did a demo in the shop and the signal was barely audible. But it’s OK for text-messages as far as I could tell. Might help you keep in touch with us.”

“And my wife,” said Peter brightly. “Thanks Saul, it’s a fantastic idea.” “You have to keep it on the chain, it acts like an aerial I believe.”

 

“Brilliant,” said Peter. He was unlocking his trunk to put it in when there was a heavy bumping noise from the stairwell.

 

“Hurry up,” said Saul, “I think that’s Mary coming.”

 

Sure enough, Mary appeared with two enormous suitcases.

 

“You leaving now too?” she said to Peter as she set down her luggage. “Yep,” said Peter rather tightly. It was evident he was starting to become nervous.

Mary took pity on him. “I’m sure you’ll be great on this Manifestation, Saint,” she said. “You know you’re a natural at these priests. And I don’t think the conquest could succeed without you,” she added encouragingly.

“Absolutely,” echoed Saul. “We’re really depending on you Peter.” No harm in encouraging him, he thought.

 

“Well, let’s hope so,” said Peter. “Are we sharing a cab?”

 

“All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go, I’m standing here outside our door,” answered Mary.

 

“The taxi’s waiting, he’s blowing his horn,” observed Saul.

 

“So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll cover for me,” grinned Mary, giving Saul and Peter large hugs.

 

“I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again, oh guys I hate to go,” said Peter, picking up his trunk.

 

“I’m leaving on a jet plane,” echoed Mary ,”and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, alas.”

Saul helped her load her amazingly heavy bags into the taxi, and stood watching the taxi pull away. As it disappeared round the corner, his rounded shoulders slumped and he headed tiredly back to his office.

Smallpox plague, distraction of Apollo, death of Wayna Capac and civil war amongst the Incas, Peter there to manage it on the ground. He ticked them all off on his fingers. He felt like he’d thought of everything. It still couldn’t stop him feeling nervous. Perhaps I need a little distraction myself, he thought, and strode off to arrange an urgent financial review with Croesus as his last meeting of the day.

A last idea occurred to him suddenly, and he changed course and gave Beelzebub a call.

 

“Hi Bubba, how would I go about arranging a press blackout on our activities in South America.”

 

“No problem, Saul, leave it with me.”

Half an hour his phone rang. It was an official from the foreign office. “I am calling on behalf of Scheherezade, the Foreign Secretary to inform you that a press blackout on activities on Earth in South America has been put in place, Mr Tarsus.”

Well, how about that, thought Saul.

 

Chapter 45

Mary lay on the beach outside Peter’s villa. Apollo was beckoning her to join him in the sea. She waved back lazily. It really did seem like Paradise, here alone with Apollo in such a beautiful spot. They’d been there just over a week, and it was going like a dream.

Mary felt warm, contented, secure and loved.

By contrast, Peter was freezing, exhausted, hungry and frightened. Being a systematic man he was just attempting to arrange these adjectives in order of priority in his mind when yet another soldier approached him to hear his confession and give him a final benediction. He seemed to have spent the whole night doing this, although he could understand why. Anyone believing what these men believed would want to have made their peace with their god under the current circumstances.

They had marched relentlessly across the high Andes, driven mercilessly by Francisco Pizarro, without doubt the hardest man Peter had ever come across. When a few of his soldiers had ventured a protest, Pizarro had replied “it is not appropriate to show fear, and still less to think of turning back,” and gone on to point out that the moment they flinched, the enemy would be upon them.

Peter had been sick with the altitude, and his friar’s robes had hardly kept out the cold of the mountain nights. Every step of their way had been haunted by soldiers of the new emperor, Atahuallpa, who, it appeared, had recently won the civil war Saul had arranged.

Now they were camped high above the valley over the town of Cajamarca. It was still night, and all around they could see the campfires of Atahuallpa’s army. Pizarro had estimated their numbers at upwards of thirty thousand and Peter was not inclined to doubt him.

Another soldier approached him for blessing. “I am full of fear, Friar Vicente,” said the soldier. “We are so few, and so deep into the land, with no hope of rescue.” Peter did his best to say the right words and utter the appropriate benedictions.

He was expecting battle to be joined at first light when, to his surprise as the first light of dawn shone over the hills, he was informed that he would be joining an advance party, who would be meeting Atahuallpa south of the town. He was just looking for a moment when he could find a quiet corner and send a text-message back to Saul, when the summons came.

The advance party was led by a captain named Hernando de Soto, with whom Peter had formed a reasonable relationship. He was at least easier to handle than Pizarro. He assembled a small group of cavalry, followed by Peter with a group on foot, and headed to meet Atahuallpa and his retinue.

Seeing Atahuallpa, de Soto spurred his horse right up to him. Atahuallpa did not flinch, and Peter conceived a certain admiration for him. He certainly looks the part of a great emperor, he thought.

They were offered an unpleasant sour fermented drink, which Peter later discovered to be maize beer, in golden cups. De Soto poured his on to the floor, and the rest of the advance party followed his lead.

Atahuallpa looked extremely cross for a moment, then recovered himself, and through his interpreter told them that they should wait in one of his buildings facing on to the ceremonial square in the centre of Cajamarca. There was little they could do but agree. Peter followed his group back to the main force of the Spaniards, and from there they headed into the town. They hid amongst the colonnades of the building indicated to them, looking over the great plaza, and waited.

Left alone in his hiding place at last, Peter flipped open his crucifix and hastily tapped out a message to Saul. “The indians’ spies are letting Atahuallpa know we are all inside this hall, full of fear, and none of us is showing our face in the plaza,” he typed. “It is true what they are saying, because I can see myself many of us who without noticing are pissing ourselves out of sheer terror.” Hearing a voice behind him he hastily clicked send and normalised the Noetherian Ring. He was very grateful for Saul’s gift, which had allowed him intermittently to keep in touch with his wife. This would undoubtedly save him a great deal of trouble later, he thought to himself.

Saul was feeling tired. It was proving harder work than he had expected to manage Mary and Peter’s departments as well as his own. He was just taking a short break over a coffee in his office when Peter’s text arrived.

He read it and shuddered. He was rather regretting his last-minute idea of the press blackout, as it left these brief text messages from Peter as his only source of news on the ground. Occasional at best, staccato and disjointed, they left a good deal to the imagination. His imagination was now attempting to conjure what it must be like hiding amongst the colonnades by the plaza in this town Cajamarca. He glanced at a map, whilst trying to picture the frightened men and smell the stench of the horses, sweat, and – if Peter’s message was to be believed – human urine. Ugh.

His musings were interrupted by the phone. Answering it, he found Beelzebub on the line.

 

“How’re ya doing Saul?”

 

“Actually, Bubba, it’s quite hard to tell.”

 

“Well, Saul, that’s partly why I’m calling. That press blackout we arranged…?”

 

“Yes,” said Saul slowly.

 

“Well, Scheherezade only set it up as a favour to me, really Saul.”

 

“Thanks for that. Bubba, I appreciate it.”

 

“Not at all, Saul, not at all. I’m on your side after all. Anyway, the point is, she’s having to cancel it.”

 

“What!?”

 

“Yeah, well, it seems there was a load of pressure from certain interested parties applied to the freedom of information office, and they’ve caved in.” “What interested parties?”

 

“Give me a chance Saul,” said Beelzebub. “Sorry, Bubba, do go on,” said Saul contritely.

 

“Scheherezade’s border patrol people have been listening to a lot of tales recently, from these smuggler guys they’ve picked up.”

Saul was struggling to see the connection when Beelzebub continued. “But now she’s been able to weave a web of these stories around a couple of our mutual acquaintances.”

“You mean…”

“Sure Saul, that’s exactly what I mean. The pressure on the freedom of information office was the last piece in the jigsaw-puzzle, so to speak. The final strand in the web.”

“So she’s arrested…?” Saul paused, waiting for confirmation. “Jupiter and Saturn.”

 

“Mercury too?”

 

“Not that I’ve heard of. I know he comes to your meetings, Saul, but he’s only a messenger-boy really.”

 

“Any chance of reversing the press blackout decision?”

 

“None at all, Saul, none at all. You’ll just have to grin and bear it.”

They ended their call, and Saul contemplated for a moment. On the one hand, contacting Peter directly risked all kinds of repercussions at such a critical juncture. On the other hand, the risk of Apollo finding out what was happening behind his back was too serious to ignore.

Arriving at a decision, he reached for his phone, and tapped out a brief message. “Urgent you do it now: Saul. P.S. Good Luck.”

Peter’s cross buzzed and vibrated discretely as he looked out into the plaza. A huge procession of people was entering, many of them soldiers, elaborately dressed, but many ordinary townsfolk too, apparently there to watch the spectacle. Finally Atahuallpa himself was carried in, seated on a golden throne on the top of his litter. Peter flicked open his cross and read Saul’s message. At that moment he felt footsteps approaching him, and frantically clicked the crucifix shut again just as Pizarro himself tapped him on the shoulder.

“Friar Vicente,” he began, looking strangely at the crucifix. Peter wondered what he had seen. “Do you have any message from the Lord?”

Steeling himself, and thinking of the message from Saul, Peter looked the old conquistador in the eye. “We must make our move now captain-general,” he said. Pizarro nodded firmly, led him over to where his captains were gathered, and they began to discuss their plan.

Some short while later, Peter found himself leading a small party across the great plaza towards Atahuallpa’s throne. Pizarro was alongside him, an Indian interpreter behind him. A handful of men accompanied them. Peter found he could no longer feel his feet as they walked slowly, with as much dignity as they could muster, through the crowds.

Halting before the throne, Pizarro made a short speech, explaining that he was the ambassador of a great ruler who desired friendship with the Incas. After listening gravely, Atahuallpa replied that he had no need of such a pact of friendship. Peter felt his moment had come.

Stepping forwards boldly, he held up his crucifix. He had a brief moment of panic as his finger accidentally brushed the central ruby, but thankfully it did not flip open. It was difficult to imagine what the consequences might have been if it had done.

“The King of Spain is a friend of God himself,” he cried, and waited for the interpreter to repeat his words. “You must renounce all other gods as a mockery of the truth and worship only our god,” he continued.

Atahuallpa looked both surprised and disdainful. “I cannot change my belief in the immortal sun,” he replied. “What authority do you have for your beliefs?”

Peter reached for his bible. “It is all written in this book I am holding,” he replied, opening it at one of the gospels. He glanced at the page and remembered the rather fraught days he had spent many years earlier proofreading Saul’s hasty drafts of this particular section. It was still (in his view) riddled with inconsistencies, but with the printer’s deadline approaching it had been all he could do to eliminate the worst of the marketing jargon. There was little doubt that the final version had been improved by the omission of phrases such as “new messiah, washes your sins whiter than ever” and “now with even more loaves.” He was brought urgently back to reality.

“Give me the book so that it can speak to me,” said Atahuallpa. Peter handed over his bible, and it was passed up to the Inca.

Atahuallpa looked carefully at the book, and then held it to his ear, page by page, listening. The crowd in the square had fallen silent. “Why does the book not say anything to me?” he asked, finally. And, without moving from his throne, he threw the bible on to the ground.

“The Indians are against the Christian faith!” cried Peter promptly, and beside him Pizarro made the agreed signal for an attack.

The blow fell on the eleventh day of their holiday. Apollo had walked down to the nearest store, a matter of three quarters of a mile or more, while Mary was preparing lunch. She was just trimming steaks for the barbecue when Apollo appeared, walking very quickly and holding a newspaper. He had a face like thunder.

“What’s the matter my love, why the sad face?” began Mary, walking out to meet him on the patio.

“You used me Mary. You’ve just been using me all along.” He threw the newspaper on to the table in front of them. “Capture of Atahuallpa,” read the largest headline.

Mary was so stunned she could not reply.

“All this while you’ve been pretending you loved me, when it was just a cynical ploy to distract me while your pathetic little firm took over my territories.”

Suddenly Mary saw it all. Oh you bastard Saul, she thought viciously. But that could wait. Right now she needed to convince Apollo.

 

“No Apollo love, please, really it wasn’t like that at all,” she finished weakly, as her tears began to flow.

“Don’t be ridiculous Mary. It’s perfectly plain. I never believed it possible that anyone could stoop so low as to whore themselves for their company, but apparently I was mistaken,” said Apollo brutally.

“No Apollo no, I wasn’t, I love you, it was Saul, he set me up. I love you,” she wailed.

 

“You really think I’m going to believe that. I thought you would have a higher opinion of my intelligence by now, Mary.”

 

“It was that bastard Saul. I love you,” she repeated desperately.

 

“I’m going to pack, and I will be leaving shortly. I suggest you stay outside here and read that newspaper while I do it.” He strode off into the house.

 

Mary began to run after him, but he shrugged her off, and she returned weeping to the newspaper.

‘By our special correspondent, Waman Poma’ it began, and went on to describe the events in which Peter had participated the day before. It continued ‘They killed the Indians like ants. At the sound of the explosions and the jingle of the bells on the horses’ harness, the shock of arms and the whole amazing novelty of their attackers’ appearance, the Indians were terror stricken. The pressure of their numbers caused the walls of the square to crumble and fall. Desperate to escape from being trampled under the hooves of the horses, in their headlong flight so many were crushed to death. So many Indians were killed it was impracticable to count them.’ Mary paused to wipe her eyes, before scanning down to the final paragraph. ‘Atahuallpa Inca was pulled down from his throne without injury and became the prisoner of Pizarro. He was put in chains and placed under guard by the Spanish soldiers in a room close to Francisco Pizarro’s lodgings. Deprived of his throne, and all his majesty, he was left sadly and disconsolately sitting on the ground in his prison…’

Apollo reappeared as she finished reading this account. He was carrying a small overnight bag into which it appeared he must have rapidly thrown a few things. Mary rushed to him, but he turned coldly and began to walk away.

“Goodbye Mary,” he said quietly as he strode through the gate.

 

Mary fled into the house, sobbing, overturning the furniture and throwing crockery to the floor.

Mary had refused to return to the office. She was too distressed, was all she would say. In the end, in desperation, Peter spoke to Virginia Carpenter, and she in turn arranged to visit Mary at her flat

“Saul. I hate him,” said Mary. There were large shadows under her eyes, and she seemed to have lost weight.

 

“Yes, Mary, dear,” said Mrs Carpenter sympathetically, “but really you must see that…”

 

“He’s a devious, manipulative bastard and he’s ruined my life,” cut in Mary.

“Well since I knew his parents, dear, then I can’t agree with all of what you say. But certainly I could share some of the opinions you express,” said Mrs Carpenter primly from the sofa.

Mary smiled faintly.

“Which is why it’s so important for you to go back to work, you see,” continued Mrs Carpenter, sensing her opportunity. “Peter’s a splendid fellow of course, he did a wonderful job on the ground in Peru, but I really think he needs some support dealing with a person like Saul. Peter’s too nice, too straightforward.”

“Meaning I’m not?” said Mary petulantly.

 

“Well, you didn’t sound it just now did you dear?”

 

Mary didn’t reply.

 

“The company needs you, Mary. The shareholders need you, certainly Joseph and I do.”

“But I can’t…”
“Of course you can, dear. Now, why don’t you come back for the All Investors Meeting? You are a shareholder as well aren’t you? And I really don’t trust the finances when that deputy of yours, what’s his name…”

“Croesus.”

 

“Yes him. Anyway, when he prepares the figures. He’s too close to Saul for my liking, much too close.”

 

“Croesus is alright Mrs C, really he is.” There was a pause. “Alright, I’ll come to the meeting,” said Mary heavily.

 

“Thank you Mary,” said Mrs Carpenter, straightening a fold in her skirt. “Was there anything else?” asked Mary, the effort of the politeness showing.

 

“Just some news you might not have heard, dear. I don’t suppose you knew that Jupiter and Saturn were arrested?”

 

“I’m not altogether surprised.”

“Really? I wonder that you didn’t mention it. However,” resumed Mrs Carpenter, “they have been. Pantheon has had to appoint an Official Receiver. I understand that Charles Cayman is carrying out that particular duty.”

“What happened to Mercury?”

“That young fool? He seems to have been cleared of any involvement and to be working as Mr Cayman’s assistant,” answered Mrs Carpenter. “You will definitely come to the meeting won’t you?” she asked again carefully.

Mary sighed. “Yes Mrs C, I’ll come. Would you like some more tea?”

 

“No thank you dearie, I must be off. Joseph will have run out of change for the meter by now. Thank you for the tea. No no, I’ll show myself out.”

Arriving slightly late for the All Investors Meeting, Mr and Mrs Carpenter found Mary hovering outside the reception. “Come on dear,” said Mrs Carpenter firmly, and taking Mary’s arm, steered her into the Boardroom.

There was a fractional silence, and then Beelzebub said simply “Howdee Mary, good to see ya back, come and sit down by me,” and, as Mary allowed herself to be guided to a chair there was a general chorus of greetings.

Saul sat at the head of the table, chairing the meeting. Mary refused to look at him. Croesus was sitting nervously next to Saul. Beside him sat Mercury, in a curious new pair of green sandals, sitting slightly back from Croc Cayman who today had chosen a dark olive suit. He smiled toothily at Mary.

Saul cleared his throat. “Er, welcome everybody to the All Investors Meeting, brought forward from its originally scheduled date of 1550AD,” he began. “First of all, I’d like to welcome Mr Cayman, in his capacity as Official Receiver for the Pantheon Fund Manager’s Alliance.”

Croc Cayman inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Jupiter’s deeds upon my head, I crave the law,” he declaimed. Seen close up under the bright lighting of the boardroom, his skin looked scaly and wrinkled.

“Sure thing Croc,” said Beelzebub, laughing.

“It’s Mr Cayman’s job to maximise the value of Pantheon for its creditors,” put in Mercury rather obsequiously. “We’re looking for a good short-term dividend from the investment in Peter Saul and Mary and then we’ll be trying to find buyers for the shares.”

“Sounds like a good moment to talk about the finances then,” smiled Saul. “Er, as Mary’s been off sick recently, I’ve asked Croesus here to present this point.”

Mary glowered briefly at him before looking away again. She opened her folder dutifully as Croesus began to run through the finances.

“…So in conclusion, the profitability has now been restored to levels in excess of those enjoyed prior to the Black Death and medium term prospects are excellent as the population recovers in our newly conquered sectors,” summarised Croesus. “We anticipate repaying our short-term loans from Cayman and Swiss comfortably ahead of schedule.” He glanced over at Croc Cayman.

“Give me my principal,” observed Croc.

 

“And let you go?” enquired Beelzebub with raised eyebrows.

 

“Well, as Mr Cayman implies, the majority was offered to us free of interest, and we will of course be paying that off immediately,” replied Croesus.

 

“Is that permitted?” asked Mrs Carpenter suspiciously. “Mary?” she said sharply.

 

“Oh yes, no problem,” muttered Mary listlessly, not looking up from her papers.

 

“And finally, we are pleased to announce that a ‘conquest’ special dividend will be paid immediately to all shareholders,” concluded Croesus.

 

There were smiles around the table. Peter looked thoughtful before coming to himself and saying “That was excellent Croesus, thank you.”

“I think that’s your point done, Croesus,” said Saul approvingly. “I suggest you go now and attend to that other matter,” he added rather mysteriously. Croesus nodded acknowledgment and left the meeting.

“And now, Peter, let’s hear all about Peru,” said Mrs Carpenter brightly, after glancing at her agenda.

Saul hastened to regain control. “Next item on the agenda, report on conquest of Latin America, beginning with an account of the pilot project in Mexico,” he ended pointedly. He gave a brief account of Cortes’ campaign.

“Mighty fine work, Saul, mighty fine,” said Beelzebub, banging the table with his fist.

 

“Yes, very good Saul,” said Mrs Carpenter thinly. “Now, Peter, Peru.”

Peter, who had fidgeted impatiently through Saul’s account, looked round expansively and plunged into an enthusiastic description of his part in events. He was forced to acknowledge the beneficial effects of the activities of Four Horsemen.

Mrs Carpenter was flicking through her copy of the accounts. “Couldn’t you have got a better discount on all this work they did for you, Saul?” she asked sharply.

“It’s quite difficult to negotiate with your balls in the vice, Mrs C,” answered Saul sarcastically.

 

“Really Saul. I do dislike all these underhand methods, plagues and assassinations. Peter’s method is so much more honourable don’t you think?”

Peter beamed. “Perhaps we could move on to the next item,” said Saul, his face falling slightly as he saw what it was. “Progress on the Schism. Er, your point again Peter I think.”

“Thank you Saul,” said Peter a shade patronisingly. “Well, as you will have read, our man Luther nailed up his ninety-five theses, and since then…”

 

“…all hell’s been let loose,” cut in Saul. “We’ve had a Diet of Worms, and…”

 

“Really Saul. Must you continue to be so disgusting,” put in Mrs Carpenter. “Do go on Peter.”

 

Saul gave him no chance. “And now they’re frantically reforming and counter-reforming and heaven only knows where it will all end.”

 

“I’m sure Peter has it under control, don’t you Peter?”

 

“Oh absolutely, Mrs C, absolutely.” Peter tried to look confident. Beelzebub looked carefully at him but said nothing.

 

“Any more points?” asked Saul.

 

“Only to remind you that we need buyers for the Pantheon stake in the company,” said Mercury. “If anybody could suggest anyone?”

 

“Moses, take an action to the minutes for everyone to speak to their contacts,” said Saul. “Any more. No?”

 

“Hey Saul, aren’t you forgetting something?” chuckled Beelzebub, waving his cigar.

 

“What is it Bubba?”

 

“This meeting is supposed to vote on winding up the company. Remember?”

“All those in favour of winding up?” asked Saul, looking round the table cheerfully. The were no votes. “Against?” All hands were raised. “Well, that’s carried then. Meeting concluded.”

Mary got up miserably, and headed briskly back to her own office without speaking.

After a few minutes chatting with Beelzebub and Croc Cayman, Saul wandered around the table and spoke quietly to Mrs Carpenter. She was talking busily to her husband. “A special dividend. Marvellous isn’t it Joseph. That place on the coast we’ve always wanted, perhaps I could get back on to the agents and…”

“Mrs C,” interrupted Saul softly. “I wonder if you could spare me a moment.”

 

Mrs Carpenter eyed him with disfavour. “What is it Saul?”

 

“If you would just come with me to Mary’s office please, Mrs C,” said Saul insistently.

It was clear that she was about to argue, but the mention of Mary evidently changed her mind. “I suppose so, Saul,” she said. “Come on then, let’s go if we’re going.”

They walked through the offices into Mary’s department. Saul stopped briefly by Croesus desk and asked a sotto voce question. He received a nod in reply. Boldly taking Mrs Carpenter by the elbow, he steered her to Mary’s door, knocked and walked in without waiting for a reply.

Mary was sitting at her desk behind an enormous bouquet of red roses. There were tears on her face again, but it was clear that they were joy not misery.

“Mary dear…” began Mrs Carpenter.

 

“You’re still a devious, manipulative bastard Saul,” said Mary looking him in the eye. “But thank you very, very much.”

She passed the card from the roses over to Mrs Carpenter. “Mary, please forgive me. I should have listened. Please please forgive me. I love you so much. Apollo,” it read. “P.S. call me, please call me.”

“I called him. He’s coming right over this evening,” said Mary happily. “He told me you’d called him and explained it was all your fault,” she turned to Saul.

“Well, yes, it’s true. I promised I’d take full responsibility for it, so I did,” answered Saul. “We talked for a bit, and he agreed that all was fair in business and war.”

“But not in love?”

“You tell me Mary,” grinned Saul. “I think actually he was relieved to be able to focus his attention fully on his holiday-homes business. Anyway, he was much more concerned about you than his finances, and he asked me if I had any suggestions, and, well, there you are darling,” he finished, gesturing at the roses.

“Thanks Saul,” said Mary, getting up and hugging him.

 

“I’ll show you out, shall I, Mrs C?” said Saul.

 

After they had left, Peter, who had apparently been hanging around outside waiting for them to finish, came in, looking a little sheepish.

 

“Hi Mary, how’s things?” he asked, rather superfluously.

 

“Did you know?” she asked.

 

“About this. Well yes, Saul told me before the meeting actually.”

 

“No Peter. I meant about the villa.”

 

Peter hung his head guiltily.

 

“You’re a devious manipulative bastard too then,” she smiled.

 

“How did you know?”

 

“I could hardly imagine you having a place with no TV or phone in it.”

 

“I suppose not. I’m glad to see you’re so happy about it.”

 

“I’m in a forgiving mood just now,” smiled Mary again.

 

“Er, good. Then I wonder if you could do me a small favour?” “Go on, Saint.”

 

“This special dividend we’re all getting. Do you think you could pay it into a different bank account from usual?”

 

“Hiding money from your wife are we?”

 

“Here’s the account details,” answered Peter quickly. “Would that be OK?” “No problem Peter, give these details to Midas and I’ll get him to arrange it.”

 

Chapter 51

Back in his own office, Peter closed the door carefully, sat down at his PC and located a particular file. He studied it closely for a few moments, and then with slightly trembling fingers, picked up the phone and dialled.

“Hearts-of-Gold Ltd, how may I help you?” answered a familiar voice. “I was worried you would have gone out of business.”

 

“We close down next week. Is that Mr Fisher?”

 

“It is,” he replied, his heart racing.

 

“I believe you would like to place an order.”

 

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