CHAPTER ONE – Up the hill
Just outside the village of Tawelfan, not far from the Welsh city of Newport, stood a smallish cottage on a hill. It had been there for as long as the villagers could remember, and so had the old man living in it. Grandma Ceridwen, the oldest one among them, said his father had lived there before him; though when asked when the man had died, or what his son had been like as a boy, she had the tendency to start talking about the weather instead.
Every now and then a child or a group of children would get curious as to what the old man was up to, all alone on his hill, and creep up to his house. However, this was not as easy as it looked: most of them returned without ever having seen the house, saying they’d run into some kind of obstacle on the way, and their parents would despair over the state of their clothes (“Mud, rotten vegetables, whole gallons of cherry juice, what will he think of next?” one mother was overheard complaining to her neighbour). Once, one kid had managed to get as far as the old man’s doorstep, but looked scared out of his wits when he came back and would only speak after a whole week, and then only to rasp out “Don’t – call – him – Gandalf!”.
“Still, you’ve got to envy him, in a way,” the men down at the pub would say to each other. “I mean, no bloody ID checks,” said Ray. “And no monthly bloody tax return,” said Rob. “Probably not even a bank account,” whispered Tom, and they all murmured in agreement, Ray checking for the umpteenth time whether the security camera in the upper right corner was still there.
Yep, it was.
“All right, boys, closing time,” said John the barman, and they all checked their watches, trying not to grumble too loudly. It was barely nine.
“You know I’ve got the inspector coming in tomorrow.” John held up his hands defensively, and they shrugged. Things really weren’t the same anymore.
Not three hundred feet away, Alex Carter was finishing his dinner. “Thanks for the lovely meal, mum,” he said, forcing the last few spoonfuls of stew down his throat.
“It’s not Cambridge cuisine by a long shot, I know,” sighed Mrs Carter, and Alex made an extra effort to look enthusiastic. “It’s great, mum.”
“So, what are your plans for the rest of your stay?” And without waiting for him to answer, she said, “I thought we could visit your Gran tomorrow. She hasn’t seen you in at least 6 months, and look how you’ve grown!”
“Mum, I’m twenty-four. I don’t grow anymore.”
“Well, your hair, then.”
He pushed his blond hair back self-consciously. “It’s getting a bit long.” Standing up, he took their plates to the sink. “Anyway, could we postpone that? I was thinking of going up the hill tomorrow, y’know.”
“Oh, Alex,” she sighed. “Are you still obsessed with going to talk to that man? He’s just an old loony, you know. Why, only the other day his pigs came running down the path on the south side of the hill, scared out of their tiny little minds, and I swear you could hear him trampling and howling behind them! And just last week young Barney Evans –”
“– tried to creep up to his house and fell into a pit full of mud. I know, mum. I’m telling you, though, there’s something about him. I just know he and his ancestors have probably been in this area forever, and you know how so many books link Caerleon and Arthur…”
“– with no proof whatsoever, Alex, from what you told me on the phone. I just don’t want your medieval obsession to interfere with –“
“My ‘medieval obsession’? Mother, only last year you were telling me how glad you were I’d finally decided on one course!”
“I know, it’s just that with all the inspections these days…” She sighed, her shoulders slumped, and he patted her arm awkwardly.
“I promise I won’t draw anyone’s attention to Tawelfan, mum. I promise.”
“Do we have your full attention, Mr Roshannon?”
James focussed on the woman opposite him, who for the last half hour had been giving the most boring statistics overview he had ever witnessed.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Those are very important developments.”
“Quite. As relevant to UKNB as any other national bank, I should say.”
James just gave her a small smile, one that he knew was just charming enough to win her over, but didn’t throw his professionalism into question. “Do carry on.”
And she droned on. Well, suspicion was what he’d expected, he mused as he idly scribbled some random words onto his notepad; after all, he was the youngest here by far and would therefore have to undergo some testing. He was sure these people hadn’t ever come across a national bank CEO’s personal assistant who was only twenty-seven. He was sure they were all asking themselves whom he had slept with to get to that position, and he was sure that they were all waiting for him to make a mistake.
Too bad for them. He was bored, but he was also good, and even if he didn’t listen to much of what was said, he would still be able to come out looking competent.
When it was his turn, he gave a brief, but comprehensive overview of UKNB’s current actions and transactions; everyone was visibly impressed, although whether with his easy manner and delivery, or with the bank’s results, he couldn’t be sure.
“So you’re saying British bank consolidation has been completed a hundred percent?” asked the Nippon Bank representative, and James nodded. “We bought the last HSBC shares only last week, in fact. All employees have been retained, naturally.”
His Japanese counterpart nodded, looking envious. “We are still working on bank centralization in our country. Some of the old CEOs are being a little… resistant.”
“Well, you had a lot more regional banks,” replied James. “Although I find it helps if you think about it in terms of mergers rather than as centralization. It really drives home to the critics that what we’re doing is important, and right.” Those who weren’t jotting down every word he said nodded in agreement.
“Your work is very impressive,” the German representative told him during tea break. “Within a year you have managed to implement GIFT’s regulations. We, meanwhile, have similar problems to our Japanese colleague. Federalism… it’s such a pain. You should see some of the arguments the Bavarians come up with.”
“Well, the Bavarians were given the chance to separate,” James commented. “But if they can meet neither GIFT’s nor IST’s requirements…”
“Quite right,” the German said, nodding and smiling at him, and James knew he had scored another point. These people were so easy.
Easy and gullible.
Alex’ promise hadn’t been enough to calm his mother, and he spent a lot of the next morning arguing with her about the same subject. Finally he managed to get away, and as he walked through the wood leading to the hill, he felt an almost physical relief, stress and worry stripping away until he felt only the cool breeze on his skin and the soft ground under his shoes.
It was funny, he thought as he gazed and listened all around him: It almost looked as though the vegetation increased, grew fuller and richer the closer he got to the hill, and there were more birds, and their song was happier, clearer.
Now stop it, Alex, he said to himself. As if you could tell when birds are happy. Maybe they’re scared and telling you to turn back.
But he wouldn’t turn back, he knew. This was easy, relaxing; there was no vestige of the fear he had felt that one time he’d made his way towards the old man’s house as a little boy.
He stopped. Funny. He hadn’t really remembered going there before. It was normal, of course, since every child from Tawelfan tried it sooner or later (if only to compare war wounds afterwards); but he hadn’t actually remembered doing it. And try as he might now, he couldn’t remember how his little adventure had ended.
He shrugged and continued on his path. It didn’t matter. He was going there now, and somehow he didn’t think he was going to be stopped.
As he started climbing the slope, he realized he hadn’t felt this free and unsupervised in a very long time. Certainly not in the last three years. He checked to his right and left, but he knew anyway that there were no surveillance cameras here, no clocking booths.
No IST. That really felt like ages ago.
When he had almost reached the top of the hill, he suddenly found himself in front of a vast bramble thicket. Almost without thinking, he went to the right, although that way looked much less passable. About two hundred metres further, he found a gap in the bushes that he could just about squeeze through – and there lay in front of him a small but neat path which led right up to the back door of the house. He stared at the path, almost willing it to divulge its hidden traps and snares. It stared back at him innocently.
He took a tentative step, and felt… nothing. He took another step, and another, and forced himself not to break into a run. Earlier than he had expected, he found himself facing the door.
This was unreal. He was actually here.
He lifted his hand – hesitated – and knocked.
There was a loud crash from within. Then silence. Then the door flew open, and he stood face to face with the old man, who just stared at him.
“Did you see the demonstrations in Germany?”
James looked up from his Ipad. Mr Howen was standing in the doorway to his office, gazing at him in that slightly disturbing fatherly fashion that he had come to adopt with him.
“DAS IST GIFT.” James nodded and got up to shake his boss’s hand. “‘That is poison.’ Not the most original slogan, but at least it’s concise, I guess.”
Howen chuckled and sat down on the sofa in James’ office. “Concise, yes, that’s one way of looking at it.”
“How would you describe it, sir?” inquired James, sitting back down in his chair.
“‘Disturbing the peace’ is one thing that comes to mind,” said Howen lightly.
“‘No peace without order’,” quoted James, nodding. “One would think the Germans would understand that.”
Howen sighed. “Yes, it gets me worried, actually. If they can’t keep their people quiet… Ah well, at least they arrested all the major instigators.”
“It’s all a matter of time, sir. We just need to continue in our struggle to show everyone that what we’re striving for is global peace and stability. Sooner or later everyone will see that the world we’re building is a much better one than before the global financial crisis.”
“I like your spirit, son.” Howen suddenly looked very tired. “It will come in handy…”
“Are you all right, Mr Howen?” James had the impression he was looking properly at his boss for the first time in weeks. “You look… well, you look pretty exhausted.”
“I’m dying, James.”
James blinked. So did Howen. He looked surprised, as though he hadn’t planned on saying this at all.
Howen fixed him with his gaze for several long moments, then nodded. “Yes. Only a matter of time now, they say.”
“The doctors, of course. It’s my heart. Clots. Too late to operate, too, apparently.”
James was silent for several long moments. “I’m sorry, sir.” His heart felt hollow. In spite of everything that separated them, he’d grown quite attached to Howen. He knew the man had no family and barely any friends. Who would mourn him when he was gone?
The CEO seemed disinclined to continue, and James forced himself to ask, “How long?”
“Oh, anytime, apparently. Whenever I next get too stressed. And let’s face it, that’s not unlikely in my position.” He squinted at his assistant, then seemed to make up his mind about something. “I want you to take over, James.”
James stared at him.
“Yes, I know it’s a little sudden. But who better to continue my work? You know it best. And you have the right ideas, and the right spirit. You are the one who can truly bring it all together.”
James was at a loss. This was too early. He wasn’t ready. How was he supposed to just fill those shoes? How was he supposed to take over the position of CEO of the United Kingdom National Bank?
And what would Howen say if he knew why James was really here?
Aurelia Thomas sat back in her chair, her hands folded, her face in a frown. Interesting. That would undoubtedly bring some changes. But would they all be good?
Reporting to this Teal was obviously the first thing she should do. However, anticipating a few questions, she checked up on a couple of things before she went down there. It was never good to come unprepared. After having checked, moreover, that the system was still recording on all her seventeen screens, she left her office.
Gregory Teal, head of operations, also just called ‘The Teal’ (nobody really knew why), listened quietly to her report, his lips pursed. There was a long silence, during which he intermittently stared at her and his screens, several of them now switched to cover Roshannon directly.
Finally, he said, “The fact that we only found out about Howen’s illness today is unacceptable. Whom have we got on Howen’s doctor’s feed?”
“It’s William Fulton, sir.” One of the things Aurelia had checked before coming to him.
“Fulton William to my office,” said Teal into one of the many microphones on his desk, and she shuddered inwardly. That calm voice deceived no one; Fulton was getting the boot and he was lucky if he had a quiet life after that.
“Relay,” said Teal, almost dreamily. “Relay and coordination, that’s what’s still lacking. This should never have escaped our notice.”
“Agreed, sir,” said Aurelia and stood to attention as Teal stared at her for a minute or two.
“Check up on Howen’s illness and his chance of survival,” he ordered finally. “You have the entire press and medical departments at your disposal. Acquire new informants if necessary. And let me know by tomorrow how many new people you need to cover Roshannon.”
“Yes, sir.” Aurelia wondered if she had just been made officially responsible for UKNB as a whole. However, it was probably wiser for now to just follow The Teal’s orders to the letter.
Roshannon was going to be a tricky one, she felt. She never really knew what was going on behind that poker face.