Touchstone ~ Prologue
Unruffled by the silhouettes of a vacated city life, the woman glanced blankly in both directions and crossed the road. A half open gate lured her into a grassy quadrant, its miniature gardens divided by neat cobble-stoned paths and surrounded by gold-tipped railings. She felt safe there. An oasis in a concrete desert. The woman perched on the edge of a love bench, its wood velvety from the damp night air. `To my darling husband ~ My best friend`, its brass plaque read. Nearby, a horizontal tree trunk, smoothly planed and highly polished glinted in the dim light, reminding the woman of some giant jewel in a children’s fantasy story. `Cherish Our Brave Daughter, Charlie 1978 ~ 1989` the dedication read. Eleven years old. She considered the garden, her eyes sweeping from one nurtured corner to the next and back again. In a perfect harmony, nature had softened the disciplined lines into a leafy haven, its mystic, almost heavenly charm attempting to console the woman. Some people did care, she thought, unravelling the photograph and examining the creased image. Her lips parted as if to speak and closed again. As if responding to the urgency of a mobile phone, she pulled out a folded cotton handkerchief from her pocket and dabbed repeatedly at her nose, wondering what she would write.
Gothic lanterns lined the pavements like redundant policemen in a long inflexible queue, their muted yellowy shadows leading her along a riverside path and onto the Millennium Bridge. Muddy water slapped at the buttresses as she drifted along, drawing wavy lines through the banister’s condensation. Where the steel structure met with concrete stanchions, her patterning blocked, she stopped and leaned over the handrail, gazing into the distance as if looking for answers to unasked questions. She tugged at her collar, Edward’s collar, hugging it around her neck, pushing the ends of her hair inside to keep warm. It was time. She knew it. Fumbling for the inside pocket of the greatcoat, her gloved hand bonding with the fabric, she retrieved a flat half-bottle. Stroking the glass with a tenderness usually reserved for babies and lovers, she followed its bold lines with the tip of her black kid finger, trailing every letter, symbol, mark, each leading to the same conclusion: Vodka 40%. She clambered onto a shallow concrete platform between the pillars and stared down into the gloomy water, sipping gracefully as if being watched by some distinguished personage at a grand gala dinner. She saw no reflection which pleased her. She swigged from the bottle, its transparent liquid searing her throat and transferring her pain. Her eyes stung, caustic from mascara mixed with tears. Another gulp pulsated downwards. Her body ached. Her mind, wiped out. In the distance, a motor-bike’s low growl replaced her bare thoughts with jaded memories of their first date. She remembered her giddy response to his sudden request. She remembered too many things.
Chapter 1 ~ Edward
The morning paper stuck through the door at a peculiar angle. Edward’s face, branded across the top corner, smiled unflinchingly at Verity. Her fingers trembled as she tugged it from the mouth of the letter box, tearing the edges of the flimsy pages into a series of corrugated triangles. She read the bold font which accompanied her husband’s portrait, buried the paper under the door mat and returned to the kitchen, her heart thumping.
Pre-programmed for his morning routine, Edward Spencer was already ahead of schedule. Verity listened tentatively for her cue. She squeezed four small oranges into a tumbler of ice and set it at his place. Two pieces of granary bread stood to attention in the toaster. A platter of freshly sliced pineapple and a white ramekin, half full with translucent honey, awaited their destiny alongside a carton of muesli. Edward’s favourite coffee strutted its bitter aroma as he positioned his leather-bound personal organiser and mobile phone squarely on the side of the breakfast table. He poured out a bowl of muesli.
‘Newspaper?’ he asked without lifting his head.
Verity disappeared into the porch, counted to ten and returned without it.
‘There isn’t one’, she lied.
Using the weight of his Blackberry to hold Monday in place, he ran his finger down the Tuesday appointment column. Two brief but strategic meetings would fill up most of his morning; the first with the city’s chief planning officer, Geoff Hardacre, the second with Dalton’s Senior Councillor, Bill Watson. Edward had done his homework and presumed Watson, a dedicated sportsman, would relish the concept of a brand new leisure development in his home-town, even take credit for it. Convinced of the councillor’s flexibility, he moved his finger assertively over the time slots, verifying the two-thirty start for his `Xtreme` flagship presentation. Satisfied with the day ahead, he made a start on his breakfast.
‘Newspaper?’ he asked again.
Verity repeated her journey to the porch, returning with the same answer.
‘Milk’, he called out to Verity who was teasing the toast back into the toaster and scrambling eggs for the children’s breakfasts.
Edward pushed his bowl across the table, scooped up his occupational paraphernalia and left the room just as the toast, crisped to perfection, sprung from the toaster. In front of the hall mirror, the businessman monitored his appearance, slipped his tie firmly into place, collected his keys from a black Mandarin cabinet, standing like a sentry on guard at the front door and embarked on his journey into the city.
Forty minutes later, Edward’s face was staring back at him from his desk. He hovered in the doorway to Jack’s office, his right hand clenching involuntarily into a fist, his left, pulsing the morning paper on his thigh. Jack’s late arrival and feeble attempt at witty office banter served only to intensify Edward’s mood.
‘Cut the bullshit’ Edward snapped through tight lips. He thwacked the newspaper onto the desk wafting documents into the air like oversized confetti. The headline divulged Edward’s unease; ‘`Xtreme?` Leisure Industry Tycoon Works-Out on Corruption Racquet.’ Pacing the short distance between Jack’s oversized desk and the smoggy glass expanse, Edward squeezed crevices into his temple, burrowing upwards and outwards to relive the pressure. The Managing Director of Xtreme Leisure resembled a stereotypical private eye, unwittingly overacting a badly written episode of Columbo. Throughout Xtreme’s’ suite of offices, which occupied Prestige Towers’ fifth and sixth floors, it was a well known fact that questioning would not diminish until someone had been reprimanded, used as a scape-goat or even fired.
Edward picked up the newspaper and began to read out the offending article out loud. Although his voice could barely be heard beyond the transparent partitioning, his body language spoke volumes to those who dared to witness it:
‘It has been revealed that local business tycoon, Eddie Spencer has been lowering the blood pressure of planning officers by gifting them holidays in the sun. A council employee has spoken out. He also alleges Mr Spencer has been involved encouraging expense rackets, gifting cash …’
‘A council employee? What is the hell is an office minion doing with access to this sort of information?’
Knowing it was going to be a difficult day when the same headline had greeted him at breakfast, Jack stuffed his hands deep into his pockets, shuffled his feet and kicked imaginary stones around the polished wooden floor like an adolescent in front of the headmaster. In the five years that he had worked for Edward and latterly as his personal aide, Jack had learned when not to respond with empty words.
‘This isn’t a one inch column on a back page, Jack. It’s a fucking headline!’
Edward shook the paper at Jack and flung it across the room. Jack averted his eyes in anticipation of the inflexible gaze that was typical of his boss’s behaviour under pressure.
‘That piece is not pretty Jack’, Edward fumed. ‘I thought I’d hired a professional. Get me some fucking explanations. And soon. I hired you for your expertise Jack, not as a fucking babysitter. I’ve got Quinn for that job.’
Edward’s words moved fast. Realising it would be futile to appease his boss in this frame of mind, Ho Yin Kwok, re-named Jack Kwok at an English public school to enable foreign pupils to blend in but in reality, to help the teaching staff’s pronunciation of their two hundred Chinese, Japanese and German boarders, chose to remain mute for the rest of the interaction. Jack’s Chinese philosophy had taught him well. From his first day as Edward’s Executive Personal Assistant, Jack had tried to interpret Edward’s unique character and strived to appease Edward’s overbearing attitude and unrelenting desire for more.
‘Find Quinn and get him on the case. Get the editor. Cool things down for Christ’s sake. Re-write the story. Just do what you have to Jack. And remind the window cleaning company to winch themselves to the fifth, will you?’
‘No problem Sir.’ Jack knew better than to disappoint Edward. ‘I’ll try and keep it out of the nationals.’
Edward closed the door with the guile of a thief and walked calmly through the booth-lined contracts office, now a silent ocean devoid of bobs and waves as employees focused on computer screens to evade Edward’s wrath. The lift’s glass doors parted. Edward stepped in and was elevated one floor to executive and personal quarters. He deliberated over Jack’s failings. Jack should have known about the article before it hit the assistant editor’s desk. He had a free-hand and a blank cheque book to sort out the press. So why hadn’t he got to the root of the problem in time?
‘Rose, could you re-schedule the morning’s appointments’, Edward asked softly. ‘And get The Chief on the phone – as soon as you can. Thanks Rose.’
Rose knew exactly which chief editor Edward had meant. Alex Thomson. She couldn’t yet put a face to the name. Extraordinarily, she had never spoken directly to Thomson. But Thomson seemed to consent to almost all of Edward’s requests, often making last minute provision for him in the Daily Newspaper. Having been personal secretary for more years than she cared to put numbers to, Rose had fostered a kind auntie-favourite-nephew relationship with Edward which served to satisfy both parties. Yet some things remained undisclosed and Rose’s naivety had never fully understood the reason behind Alex’s unremitting support for Edward.
A jug of freshly squeezed orange on a silver tray had been placed on a side table next to Edward’s desk, antique and French, the sort spread across Elegant Homes centrefolds and unused reading rooms of country houses. For a man whose company bureaucracy was controlled by rigid systems and pigeon-holes, his personal space epitomised an antiques gallery, hosting an eclectic collection of French and English artefacts including random Clarice Cliff pieces in jarring shades of mustard and orange. A French Empire ormolu library clock secured central location on Edward’s favourite bachelor’s chest which was said to have originated from the Marquis of Downshire’s Estate. Like a boy growing into a new hobby, modern sketches of Xtreme leisure complexes completed the unbalanced mix.
Rose buzzed through with a message; ‘Everything is in place for the flagship’s showcase Edward. Quinn will come up for you at one-forty-five.’ Rose hesitated. ‘Oh, and your brother called. From a public phone box.’
‘That’s fine. Thanks’, Edward replied. ‘Remind Jack to update the sports celebs will you? Make sure they know the score. He’ll know what you mean.’
From a household full of books and where sport was never encouraged, Edward had derived no interest from competitive ball games. Other than boxing as a teenager for street credit, exercise was strictly for the purpose of fitness levels. Getting down and dirty in wet sloppy earth or following spherical objects around grass, into small holes or over nets, was utter madness in his estimation although he had been known to take regular skiing holidays and often joined friends during summer months on a seventy foot sloop yacht in the Eastern Mediterranean. That wasn’t sport in Edward’s mind, that was one of life’s ultimate pleasures. Having always competed against himself in the gym, he preferred not to experience team-mates’ shoulder thumping, the group inebriation photos, the whoopee cushion on his seat at the works dinner. Team games were a fashion accessory for up-and-coming human resources managers who insisted that staff bonding began with paint-balling.
Interpreting the afternoon’s schedule, Edward checked his Breitling. He realised a small gap in his agenda, drank the juice in one and slumped into the soft leather of his recliner, the air squeezing through the seams with a sigh. He depressed the massage button. The unit burred to life, soothing and manipulating every inch of his body, a result ten times that of any power-nap. And while the massage continued, he planned his carefully guarded response to the media.
Edward had never allowed himself to be beaten. As a young boy, growing up in the gentle throws of the city’s outskirts, he had endured a relatively trouble-free childhood. His adolescent days, playing five card stud poker at `Ronnie’s Gym Box` not only made him cash rich but provided a high status in street-cred rankings. Disregarding advice from teachers and habitually persuading his peers to attend ball-game lessons in lieu of him, Edward never imagined life to be any different. His early determination, stacking pound coins into piles of five and wedging them beneath his underpants in the far corner of the tallboy’s top drawer had paid off. Three lower drawers, draped with vests and pyjamas, belonged to his younger brother, and a single wardrobe, barely sufficient to hold their school blazers, was the only other piece of furniture in the tiny bunk-bedded room. This stunted top floor bedroom, lit only by a sky-light or a bare sixty watt bulb had always made Edward feel trapped and overcrowded and was his continuous motivation from the age of nine, to become rich. ‘I’m going to be a millionaire’, he’d announce to his brother and sister, each time he added a pound to his stockpile. Putting the dustbins out on Friday mornings, running to the corner shop each tea-time and vacuuming the living rooms when designated, Edward accepted one pound every time from his mother, who was only too pleased to escape household domestics. He denied himself the allotted ice-cream when Mr. Whippy rang through the street or a sherbet dip from Happy Shopper on the way home from school. Edward’s untouched savings accumulated steadily and thirty years later, prior to Xtreme showcase presentations, he would congratulate himself of his determination and endurance in a way similar to the New Zealand rugby team, chanting their Haka before an important game.
Head to toe in Hugo Boss and flanked by his two personal advisors, Edward was not sweating under the overhead spots, not even one damp patch of perspiration showed as he removed his jacket to get down to basics. Basics being part of his hands-on marketing technique, where Edward would abandon his podium, loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves to develop a closer bond with his audience. ‘This is not just a gymnasium Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a life-style. An Xtreme life-style!’ he pronounced as cinematic screens filled the room with Xtreme’s flagship facilities. Designed to extend over fifty acres with a championship golf course, all-weather tennis courts, fitness gyms, aerobic and dance studios, the site incorporated exotic indoor to outdoor leisure and swimming pools plus the ultimate in modern hotel sophistication. Beams of silver light exploded to the sound of Tubular Bells as a scaled replica of Xtreme ~ Silverstone, a state of the art, glass-tinted, technologically-tuned, leisure development fashioned for a playground for the rich, flashed before everyone’s eyes.
Edward was pleased with himself. A first rate product along with his easy manner and broad smile had charmed potential investors, established clients and future members. With clients’ money to spend, he was without doubt his clients would flock with open cheque-books to invest in his company especially as investment invariably included club memberships for themselves and their families.
Edward returned to his podium.
‘Ladies and gentlemen I give you our Olympic champion, gold medallist, David Goodman. From the world of golf, Anthony Jacks, just returned from the US of A, and Wimbledon Ladies finalist, Louise Davis. Our nation’s heroes – and heroine are available for questions. Do with them what you will. Verbal coaching is completely free of charge today’
A round of applause distorted into the overriding hum of mostly male voices, interrupted by the Head Waiter pounding a colossal gnarled brass gong with its felt baton. The resonating drone suspended much of the conversation and Jack stepped forward.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, Lunch will be served at one p.m.’
At one, as promised, the Head Waiter had the honour of gonging once more. One of the lounge walls began to retract into its recess, revealing an interior designer’s delight; a leafy extravaganza of alfresco dining, crisp white cloths, lilies and delicate glassware. Edward invited dignitaries, VIP’s and hangers on to a lunch of pink salmon, rocket salad and flutes filled with Bollinger champagne. Outwardly unruffled but inwardly wound up like a coil due to the morning’s headlines, Edward moved harmoniously between tables, talking the talk with his newly found clientele who warmed his pockets and clinched his heart with the prospect of capital input.
‘How many DTU’s?’ Edward asked Quinn almost inaudibly, assessing the degree of damage caused by Nick Taylor’s allegations.
‘Just a couple missing from the planning department.’ Quinn tried to maintain his boss’s composure. ‘No one with any real weight, except Councillor Watson.’
Edward combed the room from wall to wall. ‘Find out why.’
‘Oh and the Gould brothers’, Quinn murmured as if an afterthought. ‘Sent their apologies.’
Apologies ran through Edward’s mind repeating itself like an alarm clock. He was annoyed that he had overlooked George and Jeremy Gould’s absence which he had to admit was probably due to the press’s recent revelation. But the brothers were used to press allegations. Only two days ago, he had wined and dined them in one of London’s most exclusive restaurants, The Room. Stage three of the hotel group integration had been agreed, thirty gyms over five years. They had all shaken hands on it. George had said it himself, ‘We’re up and running, boy.’ Edward’s annoyance abated when he thought about the prospect. He imagined the announcement, `The Gould Hotel Chain of Hotels is not only pleased but proud to present Xtreme Health and Leisure …` A feeling of victory engulfed him, puffing his chest out, his shoulders steadfast on an invisible coat-hanger, Edward grew taller. The comfort of success now fully absorbed into his every vein he mingled with his invaluable contacts and prospective clients for the rest of the afternoon.
Edward felt a firm slap on his shoulder.
‘I get it all the time in my job’, the town’s Chief Planning Officer declared whilst patting the small of Edward’s back compassionately. ‘Pointing fingers. Accusing people.’ He sipped at his third glass of champagne. ‘Missed you this morning Ed.’
‘Yes. Sorry Geoff’, Edward apologised genuinely. ‘Something came up. Couldn’t get out of it.’
‘I can read you know. S’jus’ some underdog can’t make it on his own. That Nick whatshisname jus’ wants to spoil it for everyone else. He’ll be on a back-hander from the paper’, Geoff whispered too loudly. ‘And that’s a sure thing, Ed.’
Edward made no comment. He wasn’t in the mood for aimless conversation and bribes were not on his list for public discussion. He checked his watch signalling that he had to move on and although he had a soft spot for Geoff, he was aware how alcohol slackened his jaw all too quickly. He would have to remind him. He couldn’t allow a loose cannon on board even if it was Geoff. Even though Geoff was still mourning the loss of his wife.
Late into the afternoon, the resistant business socialites were still hard at it and judging by their requests for whisky on ice and coffee with cognac, Edward was convinced his brand name and lucrative product would continue to fruition as planned.
An hour after leaving his empire, Edward sat in standing traffic. He pressed speed-dial to home and connected to Verity’s anxious voice on speakerphone.
‘I’m in a jam’, he said. ‘Might be an accident … No, I’m really not hungry. Really.’
His statements had been true. Edward had had no choice but to sit in the fast lane on the M60 for over two hours whilst Police, ambulances and Range Rovers stacked with fluorescent traffic cones, sped past on the hard shoulder. As his gleaming Mercedes S Class inched forwards, Edward’s mind raced on, his empire overtaking the ensuing road conditions. Disinterested in the catastrophe ahead and ensnared in the black nappa interior, his skin stretched from cheekbone to cheekbone like parchment over a drum base and his left eye twitching erratically, Edward considered his next line of approach.
He had to keep Bill Watson on his side no matter what. Double check Bill’s political, personal and corporate vices but mainly, his absence from the afternoon’s presentation, Edward began with Jack, punching numbers into the dashboard keypad. ‘Everyone has a price. Remember that Jack.’ Edward didn’t wait for Jack’s response. ‘Find out what floats his boat? The greedy bastard.’ Edward was persistent, switching to Quinn, his voice speeding up. ‘Where were they? A brief silence in Edward’s conversation implied Quinn’s reply. ‘Find out why. Make the calls.’ Quinn if’d and but’d into the conversation but Edward over-talked him. What’ve you been bloody well waiting for, an invitation to afternoon fucking tea? Don’t you realise the difference the Gould Brothers contract will mean to Xtreme yet. Your job for a start.’ Edward disconnected Quinn and connected to the office to confirm the following day’s agenda. There was no live response from his newly appointed personal assistant, employed to release Rose, who’d decided it was time to spend more time gardening. Edward thought about Rose for a moment. She might have been technologically challenged but at least she would have switched his phone line through to her home. Some people never change, he thought. No ambition. No urgency to move on. Rose had lived in the same house with pink roses climbing over the front door since she babysat him some thirty years ago. There had never been a time in his life when Rose hadn’t been there in one form or another, an oxymoron of distance and closeness. `Xtreme’s` answer-phone service clicked on. Edward clicked off, rubbing hard at his eye.
He pulled into the driveway. His house was in darkness. Not one light gleamed, even from a distant bathroom. In the hall, the answer-phone flashed red, begging his attention. Edward’s head ached. He had had enough social interaction for one day. Tracing the television’s volume, he found Elliot, Emma and Melanie, the babysitter, curled up in front of `Scream`, a fifteen certificate film showing an over-generous amount of blood and violence.
‘Mum?’ he asked.
‘I think she’s taking a bath’, Melanie answered. ‘The film’s almost finished. I’ll see the children to bed.’
‘Daddy, tuck me in later’, Emma squealed from beneath the fluffy blanket.
Ignoring the film’s gruesome content Edward removed the beakers and biscuit wrappers from the sofa tables. He wandered into kitchen where the stench of rotting flowers warmed by the central heating saturated the room. He opened the door wide, letting a sharp chill freshen the sour air, flicked a switch on the kettle and dropped a tea bag into a beaker. Unopened post lay in its Royal Mail band on the breakfast bar, splashed with baked bean sauce. Gulping at the hot tea, he brushed off the bread crumbs and opened the letters, wondering why Verity hadn’t dealt with them during the day. Two white envelopes addressed to Mrs. V. Spencer offered loans, a square envelope advertising window blinds and a villa rental brochure wrapped in transparent cellophane were put to one side. The foolscap window envelope addressed to Verity was not what he had expected. Another credit card application. This was the third plastic spending spree in three weeks. Intrigue turned to agitation. ‘Plastic fucking spending sprees’, he said out loud. ‘The stupid bitch.’ He tore the white application forms into neat quarters and dumped them in the kitchen bin along with the rest of the junk mail, finished his tea and went up to bed.
Upstairs was dark. The sweet aroma that usually met Edward on the galleried landing was missing. Verity had not lit the frankincense candles which dressed the entrance to their bedroom. Nor was she in the bath. Enticed by the idea of a hot soak, Edward turned both taps on to full capacity. His shoulders were tight. His body felt tense. He undid his belt and draped his clothes across the bathroom chaise then loaded Jo Malone aromatherapy tonics into the cast iron bath, eager for the muscle relaxants to honour the product’s spiel. As he climbed in, people were still talking in his head. It was time for them to stop. He was a fair man wasn’t he? Successful? Honest? The caring leader of his family, a figure head in public life? He deserved some peace. He cleared his lungs and slid beneath the water until it cooled. Stretching out on his marital bed, he flicked on the TV, forgetful of his young daughter’s request to tuck her in, unable to hear the raucous crowds on Sky Sports or feel the newspapers panning his chest and snored himself into a deep sleep.