Hotbed, p.1Bill James
Also by Bill James in the Harpur and Iles series:
You’d Better Believe It
The Lolita Man
Halo Parade Protection (TV tie-in version, Harpur and Iles)
Astride a Grave
In Good Hands
The Detective is Dead
Naked at the Window
The Girl with the Long Back
Wolves of Memory
In the Absence of Iles
Other novels by Bill James:
The Last Enemy
A Man’s Enemies
Making Stuff Up
Letters from Carthage
Full of Money
The Sixth Man and other stories
By the same author writing as David Craig: The Brade and Jenkins series:
The Tattooed Detective
Other novels by David Craig:
The Alias Man
Young Men May Die
A Walk at Night
Up from the Grave
Whose Little Girl Are You? (filmed as The Squeeze)
A Dead Liberty
The Albion Case
Faith, Hope and Death
Hear Me Talking to You
Writing as James Tucker:
The Right Hand Man
Blaze of Riot
The King’s Friends (reissued as by Bill James)
The Novels of Anthony Powell
The Countryman Press - Woodstock, Vermont
Copyright © 2009 by Bill James
First American edition, 2011
First published in the UK by Constable, an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2009
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for.
Published by The Countryman Press, P.O. Box 748, Woodstock, VT 05091
Distributed by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110
Printed in the United States of America
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My short story, ‘Makeover’ (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March–April 2007), provides some material for this novel, in slightly different form.
About every six months the two firms ran a fine dinner for their staffs in a reasonable enough large room at the Agincourt Hotel. Ralph Ember loved this historical name, dating back to a famous British victory in the fifteenth century. He considered the reference gave extra class and a kind of solidity. Ralph really prized such qualities, not just at the Agincourt, but in life altogether.
Everyone connected with both businesses came. Usually, the atmosphere was good. Ralph or Mansel Shale presided in rotation. They invited their lawyers, accountants, PR consultants, street corner pushers and disco-rave dealers, personnel executives, couriers, debt netters, management advisers and chauffeur-bodyguards. Actually, Manse often drove the Jaguar personally these days after his man, Denzil Lake, got double head shot like that, possibly suicide, perhaps not.* Nobody fretted wondering which. Tonight, though, Manse, as well as Ember and most of the others, came and went by taxi, because of the drinking. Also, it was unwise to fill the Agincourt car park with very recognizable vehicles. That could draw attention. Inevitably, the police knew of the regular dinners, but it would be stupid to get flagrant. People left at different times, so the late-night taxis did not swarm all at once, a bit of a sight and nuisancing the neighbourhood. Ralph hated discourtesy, except towards those who clearly deserved it.
As a general principle, he avoided any mixing of guns and social relations. He saw this as a supreme taste matter. Ralph thought of himself as a devotee of taste. Guns obviously brought threat, but also swank and swagger. Ralph hated brashness at least as much as discourtesy. Often they merged. For instance, he would regard it as deeply undecorous to go armed to weddings or funerals or christenings, unless he sensed a very plain prospect of outbursts of loathing and/or violence, as regularly happened at weddings, funerals and christenings, and at most formal family gatherings. And he did always take a pistol to the Agincourt meetings. He had a Beretta shoulder-holstered tonight.
Although the two companies – Ember’s and Shale’s – still worked peacefully alongside each other, Ralph often sensed that Manse craved monopoly, craved unshared commercial dominion, and might be ready soon to try destruction of Ralph: say, like tonight. The Agincourt’s car park, where the taxi would put Ralph down and collect him, had poor lighting, perhaps a period touch, imitating night in public places six centuries ago, time of the battle. Ralph understood they used to burn rushes then as lamps, which couldn’t have done much to illuminate places. Once in a while, Ralph himself thought with fondness about monopoly, too. And about Manse as a fucking obstruction. At the local university, Ember had begun a mature student degree course – suspended for now because of acute business demands – and learned in Economics lectures that capitalism always and automatically reached for monopoly, an aim recognized by many political philosophers, including Marx. Ride high, ride solo.
Ralph and Shale together had seen off a lot of new, small competitors in the powder and pill trade, including East European invaders, some touting girls as a supplement.*
Now, though, Mansel might be thinking large scale, might be thinking clean sweep, might be thinking autocracy: wipe out not just small fry, but Ralph Ember. There had been other, earlier occasions when Ralph felt on-off hints of this, but, lately, the impression grew constant and very strong. He’d come to believe he must act.
However, Ember favoured gentle, gradual moves, where practical. He believed in subtlety. As starters, Ralph decided he’d attempt to ease one of his people into Manse’s core team to do some listening and reporting on Shale’s intentions. Ember didn’t imagine this would be difficult, because a sort of friendliness – or seeming friendliness – had operated for years between the two workforces, reflecting the friendliness – or seeming friendliness – between their two chiefs, Manse and Ember. A happy and harmonious degree of overlap in trade activities inevitably developed. Ralph had heard of a top-flight London figure in the 1960s, Joey Pyle, who managed somehow to run with both the Krays and the Richardsons, though their gangs were forever at vicious war. That heartened Ralph, inspired him, as church people might derive inspiration from reading about the lives of saints. Pyle showed boundaries need not be absolute, and gave an ecumenical touch. Compared with what he had managed, Ralph considered it should be simple to place one of his lads close, or
At this stage, the Beretta rated as nothing but defensive. After all, it had only ten rounds. Ralph would avoid daft haste and, to date, he drew back from the notion of destroying Manse before Manse could destroy him – a ‘preemptive strike’, so-called in nuclear strategy. Ralph wanted the pleasant, nicely civilized surface of his firm’s arrangement with Mansel’s preserved, if feasible. It might not mean much but it meant something, so far. OK, Ralph recognized so far was only so far, but so far was as far as matters had actually gone so far, and, so far, this should not be sneezed at. Maybe the concord would continue to mean something. Maybe Ralph misread Manse’s objective, perhaps maligned him on account of that university gab. Maybe the alliance would go on sweetly, chummily and rewardingly for ever. Ralph must not rush to destroy it through panic. In some ways, he retained a kind of liking for Manse, even respect, despite the trickery and complicated muckwormishness.
And Manse probably felt a liking and respect for Ralph. Shale intended to remarry soon – a piece called Naomi Something from who knew where? – and he’d asked Ralph to be best man. Clearly, this could be seen as an honour of sorts. Or, it might be just a lulling move, the fucking snake. Ralph longed to believe it really did signify, and that Manse had no scheme to eliminate him, best man or not. Ember would wear the full, tail-coat wedding gear, as tribute to the fine, lengthy commercial relationship between Manse and him. Ralph liked to be thought of as a conservator. He hoped others would see him as this: often he wrote constructive letters to the local press on environmental and heritage topics, signing them ‘Ralph W. Ember’.
He and Shale paid turn-and-turn about for the Agincourt dinner. Although Manse might be an ungrammatical, totally crude jerk, he somehow knew wines, especially clarets, and only decent bottles, and a lot of them, appeared on the tables. Alan Clark, that MP who’d stuff almost anything female and its mother, said you couldn’t get a tolerable bottle of claret for under £100, and this would be at least ten years ago and without hotel corkage. But Ralph never niggled over costs. Small-mindedness he despised. He prized the words ‘bountiful’ and ‘unstinting’ and would have had them on the back of his hands if he’d been into tattoos. He felt they caught his character. There were people at these functions whose devotion and bravery helped hold Ralph’s firm together, and Shale’s. They should not be insulted with cheapjack catering.
Whichever of them hosted and paid for the dinner made a speech at the liqueurs stage, summing up the previous six months’ trade results and looking forward intelligently to the future. Obviously, the results quoted had been neatly edited by Ralph and Manse at a previous, one-to-one private meeting, and an agreed version prepared. Auditors they dispensed with. These results were not the exact results but the results Ralph and Manse thought tactful to disclose to such a crew.
Take the lawyers, including QCs. The firms unquestionably needed a team of these always ready in case the authorities tried to get awkward and harsh. There was a new Chief Constable who seemed strong and abnormally keen on lawfulness, so, obviously, he might have to be countered. Nobody – and definitely not Ralph – would dispute the usefulness of the on-call lawmen in these conditions. They had to be kept comfortable by him and Manse. But this could never mean giving them total disclosure of the firms’ finances. They would up their already very distinguished fees if they discovered as fact the companies’ true profitability. Probably they already guessed at the true profitability. This was not the same as being told, though, and knowing.
Or think of the debt collectors and enforcers – Arrears Reconciliation Legates, to use their proper professional title. Conscientiously they grievous bodily harmed, kidnapped, and all-round terrorized slow-pay and defaulting clients, urging them to cough immediately with gross interest. If these earnest helpmeets learned as fact – as precise fact – what Ralph and Manse individually took from the firms each year they might want improved percentages. They’d argue for the same sort of bonus rates copped by Goldman Sachs bankers. Again, the Arrears Reconciliation Legates – familiarly, shortened to ARLs on career path documents – yes, the ARLs might suspect Ralph’s and Shale’s income levels, but they lacked confirmation, and definitely wouldn’t get it from a token presentation at this Agincourt beanfeast. A comprehensive run-down was unthinkably out of order and workaday for such a happy social evening. It would be poor form to burden the occasion with full, detailed accuracy. Some detail – including, even, instances of correct detail – some detail could be offered, perhaps should be: those listening were not bumpkins and would be alert to concealment and/or deception. But too much authenticity might become tiresome.
Ralph already had in mind someone who could possibly handle well the task of subtly sounding out Mansel and getting the insights back fast to Ralph. Speed might be crucial. The ‘pre’ in ‘pre-emptive strike’ was clearly the guts of it. A post-emptive nuclear strike couldn’t happen because there’d be nobody left to make it happen. Ember didn’t know when Manse meant to move against him, or if he meant to. Ralph possessed only his belief that things could turn bad. Over the past few weeks, this idea had grown increasingly insistent. He’d been wary taking the few steps from the taxi across the Agincourt car park tonight to the hotel’s rear entrances. Nothing occurred. He’d try to be just as alert when leaving, though – perhaps have his hand up to the holster. He mustn’t let the booze turn him dozy. He could have called in a couple of bodyguards, but that would make him look nervous, feeble, dependent. Ralph Ember had an image to think of. He liked to be reckoned robust, dauntless. Consider also: wasn’t some top Indian politician actually murdered by his/her bodyguards? In addition, to use minders would proclaim that Ember smelled a plot. Then, perhaps Manse would bring forward his plans, before Ralph had got himself up to readiness.
He spent half a morning not long ago computer searching character profiles of folk in his firm, seeking the most suitable to capture Manse’s confidence and assess his attitude, expose his calculating dreams. Ralph didn’t bring the personnel department in on this selection. He’d manage alone. Total confidentiality must be the aim. He feared leaks. Because he found it hard to forecast what qualities would be most appropriate, he worked from the negative side. That is, he rejected those who seemed dangerously wrong, and hoped this would leave him with a shortlist of one or two capable candidates. Ironically, the discards might have plentiful skills for the company’s usual operations, but these skills would not necessarily do now, could even bring disaster.
Consequently, he dropped from his list anyone who sounded too head-on confrontational, in case s/he turned out blustering and blatant. He excluded those who normally dealt fast and direct with assignments, and who might be impatient: Ralph did want speed, but not careless or clumsy speed. Obviously, he passed over all with a habit or a history of a habit, or blood relatives with a habit; and/or with a current alcohol and/or mental problem; and everybody who unconcealably – that was the vital word, ‘unconcealably’ – unconcealably loathed Manse for those know-all, boom-boom proclamations on wine, for the bragging, braying delight he took in his Pre-Raphaelite paintings, for the large, ex-rectory home, and for his parish-wide, hyperactive shagging, which might get to some staff’s women for all they – the staff – knew.
Ultimately, Ralph had come up with one name, Joachim Bale Frederick Brown. He’d be here tonight at the Agincourt, and Ember could watch him – could see something beyond the dossier data and curt words of appraisal. His behaviour in company might be crucial. To carry the role Ralph wanted him for he would need to be, or seem to be, companionable, poised, relaxed, adaptable. The first name – Joachim – didn’t worry Ralph too much. Perhaps one of his parents or both had a German connection. Never mind. Ralph detested quite a few forms of racism and backed apologies for slavery. Or Brown’s mother and father might just have wanted to mark him out as unusual. The computer profile did not say much about his family, except that he had an actor brother who to
Although Ralph remembered running across Joachim once or twice before tonight on company matters, those had been only casual, brief meetings. Ember would concentrate now and assess. Brown had a nickname – ‘Turret’ – which Ralph took to mean not necessarily blastoff gun-mad, but all-round vigilant, the way someone in a turret should be.
Ralph ran this dinner, tonight. He thought it went well. The functions always took place on a Monday, when the ‘banqueting hall’ would normally have been closed after the weekend. The firms could hire it for exclusive use. Throughout the week the hotel put on ‘medieval feasts’ with syllabub and mead, wench-type waitresses décolletaging in a fruity way, and goose instead of swan, swans being protected birds these days. On the walls for atmosphere hung ancient armament and breastplates and helmets, mostly imitation and plastic, though some maybe actual metal. Many longbows featured, the weapon that won Agincourt. Although Ralph found this display dismally naff, he put up with it. The battle, Agincourt, had definitely taken place, and this hotel commemorated it as well as it could. The history was genuine even if the relic display wasn’t, and this more or less satisfied Ralph. A minstrels’ gallery for roundelays etcetera stayed unused this evening.
In his speech, Ralph spoke enthusiastically about the firms’ health and prospects and referred warmly to the continuing, brilliant, assured cooperation between Mansel and himself. Massive applause followed Ralph’s mention of Shale’s engagement and approaching marriage to the woman Naomi, and he mentioned what a top-notch character Naomi was in the Bible: Ralph had been interested in religious education at school and recalled a fair whack of the teaching. Then everyone sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, with a real ringing shout on ‘and so say all of us!’ to suggest outright enthusiasm and genuineness. Ralph, standing at the head of the main table, led the chorus into two repeats, occasionally pointing heartily at Manse, seated a few places away, to indicate that, unarguably, he, Manse, was the jolly good fellow meant. Ralph saw Shale – egomaniac sod – give a couple of small nods as if he knew all this, but thought he’d better offer a bit of a thank-you to the fucking nobodies around him just the same.
Hotbed by Bill James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes