Some years before I started writing about meditation and Buddhism, I wrote three thrillers. These were published in the early 2000s by Time Warner, a mainstream, London-based publisher. They have nothing at all to do with inner growth or spirituality and they haven’t been in print for some years.
But they keep coming back. They pop up on amazon quite often – it makes me smile to see a paperback copy of Expiry Date currently offered on amazon.com for $894. You can buy Conflict of Interest, on the other hand, for just 37 cents. I trust these have no bearing on the perceived value of the stories!
My dilemma is this: should I leave these books in the past, or should I re-release them? As someone who lives in his head part of me is saying: “These books have nothing to do with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.” “Putting them out there may confuse people about what you represent.” “What’s to be gained by re-publishing them?”
Another part of me is saying: “They may be a bit dated, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of.” “If I put the first chapter of my spiritual thrillers like, The Magician of Lhasa at the back of them, they could be a good way to introduce people to my new work.” “Plenty of authors write different series in different genres – readers get that.”
And so it goes on.
My very first thriller was called Conflict of Interest. So you might say, I’m feeling conflicted about Conflict of Interest – and the others. Rather than endlessly debate the subject in the mirror, I’d really value the opinion of you, my readers.
You’ll find the Prologue and Chapter One of Conflict of Interest below. Once you’ve taken a look at this, please scroll to the very bottom of the chapter and write in the Message box. Then press ‘Add Comment.’ Just so you know, your comments will be posted online for all to see, so !@# if required!
I am truly interested to know what you think.
My apologies for any typos in what follows – the scan technology I used wasn’t foolproof.
Below – the original cover design from the year 2000.
The businessman with the cheque for £5 million looked awkward. Despite being Chief Executive of the world’s largest sportswear manufacturer, and a revered business guru, Nathan Strauss had never been one for slick soundbites in front of rolling television cameras. Contrived gestures and pre-scripted lines just weren’t his style. In fact, there was something about Nathan Strauss’s very indifference to his public image that some people found deeply charismatic.
Not that the occupant of Suite 901 of the Dorchester Hotel was one of those. Instead, he watched the television news item on the Starwear donation with a familiar mix of compulsive curiosity and self-reproach. As the camera focused in on the two men sitting at the table, the Distress Line logo emblazoned behind them, phrases like ‘the unprecedented size of this donation’ and ‘considered by his peers to be a leading voice on corporate ethics’ sounded through the verbiage of the report. The story of how Nathan Strauss had created Starwear, now the world’s biggest brand after Coca-Cola, was briefly recounted. Previous donations made by the Strauss family to the arts, medical research and a variety of charitable causes were listed. All this time Nathan Strauss dabbed at his perspiring forehead with a white handkerchief, before adjusting the heavy hornrims on his prominent beak.
Then the telephone rang. “Nat, it’s me.’
‘Madeleine,’ his tone was warm.
‘You’re on the box. BBC1.’
‘Yeah. I’m watching.’ He fiddled with the remote control, turning down the volume.
‘I just wanted you to know the girls and I are so proud of you,’ she told him fondly, ‘but I’ll let you go now so you can follow it.’
‘Madeleine – ‘ he stopped her before she rang off, evidently in no great hurry to end their conversation, ‘You know, um … you know I’d do anything for you, don’t you?’
The pause at the other end was one of puzzlement. Her husband wasn’t usually given to sentimental expression. But, thought Madeleine, maybe his visit to Distress Line that afternoon had moved him to this uncharacteristic, but welcome tenderness.
‘Of course I know.’ Then, wondering how to respond, she said simply, ‘I love you, Nat.’
‘Love you, too.’
Replacing the receiver, Nathan Strauss watched himself as he moved to the lectern on which the single page of his speech awaited him. His public relations man, Mike Cullen, had offered to have the speech ghosted, but he had declined, wanting to write it himself; this speech was too important for PR. Now, the small group of Distress Line staff, volunteers, and news reporters watched him closely as he brushed back a stray forelock of his greying hair and leaned closer to the microphone.
‘Nearly all of us suffer from depression at some time in our lives,’ he began, ‘but there can be nothing worse than the appalling finality of a man who believes he has no alternative but to take his own life. “Why?” is the question we always ask afterwards-’ he paused, before shaking his head, ‘but there is only ever one person who truly knows the answer.’
As always, it didn’t matter at all that his speech lacked clever wordplay, or that his jacket was dishevelled and tie askew; he spoke from the heart and his conviction was compelling. In the semi-dark of his hotel room, Nathan Strauss followed the words of the speech he knew almost by heart to its conclusion: how he believed it was the duty of every company to give something back to society; the work done by Distress Line and the high value he placed on it. And his final line: ‘I believe we all have a responsibility to give choices to those who find themselves in despair.’
There was the applause and whirr of flash-cubes as he handed over the cheque for £5 million to the Director of Distress Line. A TV news reporter wrapped up the item, saying how Distress Line would use the donation to improve counselling facilities throughout Europe. Then it was back to the newsroom and an item on Northern Ireland. Getting up from the armchair, Nathan walked over to a drinks cabinet, pouring himself a single malt with ice. Behind him, framing the open doors that led out to his ninth-floor balcony, gold damask curtains swayed in the early evening breeze.
Half an hour later, Park Lane was a chaos of wailing police sirens and the flashing lights of emergency-service vehicles. A gathering crowd was already pressing up against the hastily erected police cordon- Paparazzi were moving into position on the roofs of nearby cars and vans, adjusting their telephoto lenses for the most saleable picture of the night.
The alarm had been raised by a motor salesman from a nearby branch who’d been walking along the pavement. The body had tumbled down only yards in front of him, and had bounced several times with such sickening force that the motor salesman hadn’t even bothered to stop, rushing instead into the hotel lobby to report the incident, before being overwhelmed by shock. Hotel security had been on the scene within seconds, laying a dark blanket over the shattered, bleeding body as their colleagues hurried up to Suite 901 where they found the half-finished glass of whisky.
When the police arrived on the scene a few minutes later, they identified the body as that of Nathan Strauss, husband of Madeleine and father of Sarah and Rebecca, Chief Executive of Starwear, a man whose personal net worth was estimated at £5.3 billion, and wearing the same suit he’d had on earlier in the day when presenting Distress Line with its largest ever donation. Police said an investigation into the cause of his death would be launched, but foul play was not suspected.
Chris Treiger would never forget the eight words that changed his life. He’d been working late at the office, one night in early July, when the phone rang. As soon as he heard the ebullient voice at the other end, he’d wondered how to cut short the call. Bill Brewster, a high-pressure head-hunter, had been hounding him for weeks about a phenomenal career opportunity, paying vast sums of money, for which he was ideally suited. Chris had heard it all before. At thirty-two years of age and MIRA’s Youngest director, he got calls from recruitment agents every month – and with offers a lot more appealing than working for some PR shop.
Chris had already told Brewster he wasn’t interested. But the head-hunter was back – and making a virtue of his persistence. He didn’t usually try to change people’s minds, he declared, it was just that case the fit was so perfect he would be doing Chris the greatest disservice if he didn’t at least suggest that Chris reconsider. Wasn’t it worth an initial meeting?
It was then that Chris had made his tactical error. ‘It might,’ he conceded, looking out at where the summer sun still burned above the horizon, even though it was past eight o’clock, ‘but I’m really up against it right now and I don’t have time to run all over town –‘
Well, you wouldn’t have to.’ Brewster was triumphant. ‘Lombard is just two streets away from you.’
Chris was wondering how to regain control of a conversation which had gone off the rails when Brewster came out with his eight, life-changing words – eight words to which Chris had returned many times in his head, marvelling at the perverse logic of them. Eight words, in the form of a question, to which there was only one possible answer: ‘Isn’t your career worth a hundred yard walk?’ Brewster had asked.
Chris hadn’t given the interview a lot of thought by the time he was due to go into Lombard. Of course he’d heard stories about the agency. Who hadn’t? But he’d done nothing to prepare for the meeting. In fact he was irritated with himself for caving in to Brewster’s hype, and couldn’t see how anything Lombard might come up with could be of the slightest interest to him. He was doing well for himself at MIRA, and even if the money wasn’t brilliant, his career was rewarding in other ways, which was more than could be said for most of his former Oxford contemporaries.
While they had been cramming at intensive training courses run by Goldman Sachs in New York, or Andersens in Chicago or McKinseys in Piccadilly, Chris had signed up with the polling company MIRA. Market Intelligence and Research Analysis was a global organisation whose voter surveys gave it a high public profile; around election time, no article about voting intentions was complete without the latest MIRA polling result As one of MIRA’s brightest new recruits, Chris had soon found himself involved in the more intellectually challenging aspects of the business. In fact, he’d devised a new way of defining voters according to attitude and lifestyle, which had been hailed as a breakthrough by the market research industry – and quickly branded the MIRA Psychographic Map™ by his employers. It had attracted a level of interest Chris found extraordinary. Political parties from all over the world had soon been hammering on his door, and so too had all the other players in political drama: spin-doctors, advertising agencies and newspaper columnists. Chris soon found himself being quoted in the press and invited to speak at conferences. He’d be phoned at all hours of the day and night by political reporters chasing a soundbite, or an appearance on TV. His clean-cut good looks – clear, blue eyes, closely cropped dark hair, sensitive features – and his personable delivery made him a popular commentator.
Chris’s bosses at MIRA had given him his own office and an impressive title and commissioned him to devise psychographic maps for companies and brands. Despite his relative youth, he had become regarded as something of a guru among MIRA’s expanding client base, his divinatory powers sought by captains of industry and those who advised them. Chris relished the role and played it for all it was worth. He became adept at forming the kind of pronouncements that attracted greatest interest from clients and the media – which had also prompted the steady stream of head-hunters to call. But his remuneration at MIRA was a frustration; even as a director, and one of its highest paid executives, his earnings didn’t begin to reflect the new business he’d brought into the firm.
Traditionalists on the MIRA Board clung to the notion that salary was a product of age and experience, and saw in Chris a bright young man with ideas well above his station. He, meantime, saw no reason why contribution to profits shouldn’t translate directly into personal reward. A parting of the ways might become inevitable – although Chris had never, for a moment, thought that salvation was to be found at Lombard.
Even though Lombard was the largest and most powerful PR firm in the City, with more FTSE 100 companies than any other, Chris had no interest at all in being a PR man. And if he had, Lombard would never have occurred to him as a place to work. For quite apart from its size and influence, Lombard and its founder, Mike Cullen, had a reputation about which Chris was decidedly ambivalent. ‘Cullen has created the Hitler Youth of PR’ he remembered someone once saying. The phrase had stuck with him – it seemed to sum up all that he’d subsequently heard about the agency.
Mike Cullen had founded Lombard on the simple premise that to build up the best client list in the business you had to hire the best people in the business – no matter how much they cost. It wasn’t long before the stringent requirements Lombard demanded of potential employees came to be known in City circles, and the term ‘Lomboid’ gained currency. To be a Lomboid was to be extremely good-looking and have immense charm, to possess a first-class degree and a capacity for ferociously hard work. To be a Lomboid was to be fluent with figures, charismatic in presentations, and brilliant on paper. To be a Lomboid was to be supremely self-confident, with a firm view on every major political and economic issue, as well as familiarity with the menu of every up-market eatery in London. To be a Lomboid, in short, was to be as much like Mike Cullen as possible.
Lomiods didn’t just act the same- they dressed the same formal dress code applied, with the PR world’s Adonises dressed suits and white shirts – always dark suits and white shirts from Mike Cullen’s preferred tailor and shirt-maker in Savile Row and Jermyn Street respectively. The Aphrodites meantime wore Donna Karan as standard kit.
The consultancy Cullen had created in his own image had soon acquired a mystique which major City players couldn’t help but notice. As Cullen’s storm troopers marched through boardroom after boardroom, their diplomacy and intelligence and winsome good looks sweeping an array of blue-chip companies into their arms, even those who cracked jokes about Lomboids did so nervously. Because there was something about Mike Cullen’s unswerving self-belief, fostered in all those who worked for him, which was patently self-fulfilling.
Lombard did things differently. Lombard consultants never travelled anywhere by taxi. A limousine service provided a chauffeured Jaguar to ferry the demigods to and from client meetings. When Lombard held its annual staff party, it didn’t bring in caterers to circulate Bollinger and crab-meat voi-au-vents. It sent ail its staff to party in New York – First Class. And while middle-ranking clients were treated to lunches in Terence Conran diners and Marco Pierre White gastrodomes, Britain’s most powerful corporate warriors were entertained in Lombard’s own penthouse dining room, where spectacular views of Tower Bridge afforded an appropriate vista for the even more triumphal creations of the fulltime chef Mike Cullen had poached from Kensington Palace.
And then there was the secrecy. While other PR firms like Brunswick and Financial Dynamics rarely told newspaper reporters much about themselves, Lombard, predictably, took things a step further; it refused all interviews- No one working for Mike Cullen was under any illusion that the merest hint to a journalist about even the most anodyne aspect of life at Lombard was grounds for instant dismissal. In more than fifteen years at Lombard, Mike Cullen had not once been quoted in any trade or national newspaper. Lombard refused even to allow its name to appear in industry league cables – even though its fee revenue would have easily placed it in the top slot. Lombard conducted no advertising. It had no company brochure. So insistent was its pursuit of invisibility that its name didn’t appear on its own stationery, which provided only an address and other contact details. Lombard consultant business cards were similarly anonymous. And enterprising journalists who tried to mine the information at Companies House, where every limited company in Britain is obliged to lodge its annual accounts, soon found that no trace of it was to be detected – Lombard had been incorporated within a convoluted trail of off-shore arrangements so that it was not required to submit a single piece of paper to any place of public record.
The effect of this extreme secrecy was, naturally, fame of the most potent kind. In an industry of mammoth egos, to seek no attention was far more effective than shouting from rooftops. Because nobody knew what went on at Lombard, they could only speculate. When Lombard’s golden wunderkinden were sighted in the back of their racing-green Jaguars, whispers would circulate about which company they were moving in on, where they were about to strike next. PR rivals, with little inkling of the nature of the beast they were up against, had only rumours with which to second-guess their competitor – and there were rumours aplenty of the most terrifying kind.
Chris recalled some of the tales of Lombard mythology the evening he made the notional hundred-yard walk – which turned out to be three hundred yards, and why was he not surprised – for his appointment with a Lombard director, Kate Taylor. After being screened by uniformed security guards behind a black marble desk – a lot more rigorous, he couldn’t help noticing, than the usual security check – he was shown through to Lombard reception. It was a vast, softly lit, sumptuously furnished atrium, which appropriately gave no impression at all of the kind of organisation that moved behind its burgundy moiré walls. The impression it did give was one of hushed reverence, confirming the notion that this was the hallowed ante-chamber to an organisation of immense, unseen influence. Glancing round at the symphony of magnificent oils, gilt-framed mirrors and velvet curtains, Chris couldn’t but be impressed. The subdued semi-darkness deepened the effect of brooding power, and was interrupted only by two shafts of light, beaming down from a vaulted ceiling on to the immaculate blonde heads of the two Vogue-like glamour girls at Reception.
Inviting him to make himself comfortable on one of the sofas, they phoned through for Kate Taylor. No sooner had Chris made himself comfortable with the Financial Times, however, than one of the receptionists called over to tell him there was a change of plan – instead of Kate Taylor, she announced in an expensive, Roedean accent, he was to meet the Chairman, Mike Cullen. Well, this came as a surprise, thought Chris, the prospect of suddenly finding himself face to face with the legendary PR man making him feel, by turn, self-conscious then irritated. So what if it was Mike Cullen? He wasn’t interested in PR and he didn’t want the job anyway.
Minutes later he was in the lift, going up to the Boardroom on the fifth floor. As the doors slid open, he stepped into a room dominated by floor’ to-ceiling windows, offering a panoramic view of Tower Bridge, the Thames, the City. Dusk was falling and with no lamps turned on in the room, one couldn’t escape a sense of sweeping omniscience looking out on a scene of such history and splendour. Mike Cullen was standing by the window at the far end of the room, and turned cowards the lift as Chris appeared. He was taller than Chris had thought he would be, and broad-shouldered, a lustrous crop of silvering hair brushed back from well-defined, handsome features. His suit was dark charcoal and his shirt was indeed white, with a button-down collar and the Windsor knot in his tie as crisp as though he had just stepped out of his dressing room. On his way up Chris had wondered if Mike Cullen would strike him as Machiavellian or arrogant or intensely driven. But as Cullen stretched out his hand towards him now, Chris realised he hadn’t reckoned on the man’s charm. Mike Cullen possessed an aura of such openness and familiarity, it was as though they had already known each other for years.
Cullen offered him a drink. Had he wanted the job, Chris supposed, he would have asked for something soft. But as he didn’t, he opted for gin and tonic. Cullen splashed out two large measures from a blue bottle of Bombay Sapphire. ‘How did you find our recruitment man?’ he enquired, clunking blocks of ice into the crystal tumblers.
‘Very… insistent,’ Chris responded.
‘Why we use him-‘Cullen brought over the drinks. ‘But I’m very pleased you decided to come.’ He sat opposite Chris, raising his glass before sipping. ‘You probably think that working here is a bit tangential to what you’re doing at the moment,’ he began, ‘but the point is, I’m not offering you a job in PR.’
Chris was taken aback by Cullen’s directness. Not that he had any intention of showing it.
‘Do you know the first dictum of our business? Cullen leaned towards him confidentially. ‘”Know Thine Enemy.”’ He regarded Chris closely. ‘Of course, all our clients start-off thinking PR is about getting them a good press. But that’s less than half the story. Managing the way the media deal with their competitors is just as important. But to get there, you first need to know about competitor plans, strategies, how they’re seen in the market he gestured broadly, ‘all the stuff you know inside out.’
It was a train of thought Chris hadn’t expected. He wondered where Cullen would end up.
‘l saw the work you did for Glaxo. Very impressive.’
How on earth, had he got hold of that report? It had been top secret and completed only the week before.
‘We’d like to do work like that for all our clients. We want to create a new role here, a new team, to feed into the rest of the business at the highest level. To cut to the chase, I want you to be Lombard’s first Director of Research and Planning.’
As Cullen leaned back in his chair, regarding him contemplatively, Chris realised his own surprise arose as much from his own undeniable curiosity as from Cullen’s unexpected frankness. Not that he could really take the offer seriously. After a pause he responded thoughtfully,
‘Intriguing idea. But I like the polling side of my job too much. It’s not something I’d want to give up.’
‘We wouldn’t want you to.’ Cullen shook his head. ‘It would do our lobbying business no end of good if Lombard became an authority on voter intentions. Bring over your political team, lock, stock and barrel.’
Chris couldn’t suppress a grin at me audacity of the notion. He could picture the looks on the faces of the MlRA Board as he announced that, as of the next month, MIRA’s most profitable research unit would be decamping en masse to Lombard.
‘That would be fun,’ he admitted now, ‘but even so, most of the work here is financial – and I’ve never seen myself as a City man.’
Cullen fixed him with a droll expression. ‘You’re not a Lomboid, huh?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘That regimentation stuff is all crap you know. It’s true that everyone who works here is very bright and very articulate and very hard-working. But they’re not all the same- They don’t,’ he pulled a face, ‘all wear dark suits. Take a look round our consumer division, it’s like a fashion show down there. And the lobbying boys are pinker than the Sydney Mardi Gras. Our success is based on synergy. Horses for courses. We don’t need another City suit – we’ve plenty of those already. What we need is someone with your analytical skills to bring discipline to the way we carry out research for our clients – the kind of stuff that’s your bread and butter at MIRA.‘
Chris’s expression was noncommittal. There was an undeniable logic to what Cullen was saying, but the whole notion of joining a PR agency was just too foreign for him to seriously consider. Nursing his gin and tonic, he asked, ‘So which clients, hypothetically need planning work?’
‘All of them, at some point in their corporate life cycle. But there’s a few with more immediate needs. Starwear is one.’
Chris looked up sharply. A month earlier he’d done a company survey for Starwear. The findings had been extraordinary, demanding further analysis, but the client had said no. Budget overrun. Chris had found that hard to believe. He doubted the results had ever found their way up the organisation to its ultimate boss, billionaire guru Nathan Strauss.
Now he told Cullen evenly, ‘I did a project for them, not so long ago.’
’I know,’ Cullen nodded. ‘Nathan told me about it.’
‘Pleased he got to see it.’
‘He saw it all right. So did I. We were very impressed with your analysis.’
Chris raised his eyebrows. What else had these guys seen? ‘Didn’t you agree the issues I uncovered deserved further work?’
‘That’s why you re here. It was Nathan who suggested we speak to you.’
This time, Chris didn’t even try to hide his surprise. The idea that a business leader as lofty as Nathan Strauss was taking a personal interest in him took him completely unawares.
‘Both Nathan and I think what’s called for is more than just another MIRA project or even two projects. It’s an ongoing process of refinement. Nathan respects your judgement and would very much like you to work closely with him – as you know, the subjects you touched on are near and dear to his heart.’
Chris could no longer pretend that Cullen wasn’t pressing all the right buttons. Nathan Strauss was not only one of the world’s wealthiest businessmen, he had also achieved a unique status as a pioneer in the area of corporate ethics. Quite apart from having created Starwear, whose distinctive star icon was now instantly identifiable all over the world, he had also been one of the first, back in the mid-nineties, to pick up that public opinion was moving sharply against the ‘greed is good’ business maxim of the eighties. It was Strauss who realised that, for reasons of hard-nosed profitability, companies had to become more environmentally sensitive, more accountable to those who consumed their products, more transparent in the way they managed such things as directors’ salaries and share options. Despite the fact that vast wealth separated him from the hopes and fears of ordinary mortals, Strauss’s sensitivity to public opinion was acutely developed. It was he who had first coined the phrase ‘enlightened self-interest’.
While competitor PLCs were badly damaged by revelations about fat cat salaries, secret share deals, deforestation, ozone damage and a wide array of other green issues, Starwear moved ahead of the times. At Strauss’s instigation, the company had produced two reports, the first on why companies needed to be more transparent and accountable, and the second on why they needed to improve their environmental performance. Dubbed ‘Starwear I’ and ‘Starwear II’, the two reports had soon become touchstones for corporate governance, not only in Britain but throughout the world, and their titles quickly became shorthand, referred to by journalists and businessmen alike. Unlikely as it seemed for a hugely rich, untelegenic, middle-aged Jewish man with an American accent, Nathan Strauss became famous as a champion of consumer concerns.
The main reason for Chris’s frustration when he’d finished his project for Starwear was that he thought he’d uncovered a new wave of consumer concerns – this time about child labour in developing countries. Television documentaries about street urchins of Calcutta being sold to sweatshop factories to work away their childhoods in appalling squalor had inflamed public opinion. Were any of the garments retailed in Britain made this way? How did they know the origins of the branded sweatshirts and trainers and golf-peaks they wore? In the past, Starwear had been accused of buying from subcontractors who used child labour but Nathan Strauss had soon stamped out the allegations. Chris knew from his recent analysis, however, that public concern was becoming more widespread and deeper felt. And companies like Starwear, manufacturing huge quantities of their output in developing countries, were first in the firing line.
Without doing more in-depth research, it was impossible to decide how exactly to manage the issues. More work had to be done – and he had wanted to do it. He’d been unable to fathom the ‘budget overrun’ response, but now as he sat opposite Mike Cullen he began to see a much bigger picture. And as he thought about the prospect of working, in person, with Nathan Strauss, Cullen seemed able to read his mind.
You know, Chris, there aren’t many career opportunities of this kind that come your way. It’s not just another research job. It’s about doing something that really matters, something that will have a positive effect in the outside world. And we’re not talking only Starwear – this work could have a much broader impact on corporate policy in the UK and beyond.’
‘Starwear III ?’
‘Exactly- Global employment policy. Community relations in developing countries.’
‘Nathan’s a radical thinker. You’ve seen what he’s done already. Cullen was expansive. ‘You’d enjoy working with him. Not only is he the most valuable client this firm has, he is also by far the most stimulating. And, you know, Nathan and I share the same basic philosophy.’ He paused significantly, ‘What goes around, comes around. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Enlightened self-interest. It’s very important to me that everyone here shares those values.’
‘With our help, Nathan and his brother Jacob have turned Starwear into the world’s most aspirational sportswear brand.’
‘Jacob’s the American brother?’
‘That’s right,’ Cullen nodded. ‘Very commercially-minded.’
What Cullen didn’t say was that he was a very different character to Nathan. Far less well-known in Britain than his Anglophile sibling, images of Jacob Strauss from across the Atlantic were of a handsome athlete who lived the Starwear brand, and whose sporting talent worked in counterpoint to Nathan’s intellectual prowess.
Across the semi-darkness, Cullen studied Chris for a few moments before he said, a note of caution in his voice, ‘I don’t want to paint a misleading picture of what it’s like working here.’ Chris let the assumption pass. ‘You’d find Lombard very satisfying intellectually. But it’s also a lot of hard graft. People put in very long weeks – sixty to seventy hours is about average.’
Seventy hours was on the low side if any of the stories Chris had heard were true. Apparently one Lombard director had arrived one Monday morning and didn’t get home till the following Saturday afternoon. The few hours he’d slept each night had been on meeting room sofas – every day he’d sent his secretary out for a fresh shirt and underwear.
The reason Lombard is the best,’ Cullen continued in an important tone, ‘is because we hire the very best people and every single one of us is utterly dedicated to our clients.’ He paused for emphasis. ‘But their dedication is well rewarded. Lombard salaries are more than double the average pay of other City consultancies. No one here over the age of thirty earns less than a hundred thousand, and most people over thirty five take home more than twice that. Performance bonuses paid in December have been well above forty per cent of salary every year we’ve been in business. And once you’re a Board Director, which you could be after three years, shares are automatically allocated to you, free of charge. I believe in securing everyone a stakeholding, that way no one feels tempted to leave. And it’s not a nominal holding. The minimum amount allocated per person is point two five per cent of the equity per year. Lombard is currently valued at a hundred million.’
He could see from the look in Chris’s eyes chat his interviewee was making the desired calculation, and gave him a moment before confirming, ‘Quarter of a million pounds. Per year. There isn’t a director here who isn’t a multi-millionaire.’
Despite himself, Chris couldn’t help being impressed. He’d known Lombard was a big payer, but had no idea it was on this scale. In seven years he could be a millionaire. By the age of forty he’d have money to retire.
CuIIen had talked around the subject of money but hadn’t got to the nub of it. Chris knew that was deliberate. On his way over here, when the idea of joining Lombard hadn’t seemed even remotely attractive, Chris had decided that if the subject of money arose, he was going to be coolly indifferent. He’d even come up with a put-’down line: ‘I’d rather think about the job first,’ he was going to say, if invited to discuss terms and conditions. He’d certainly had no intention of bringing the subject up himself. But now, as Cullen asked him, ‘Any other questions?’ cool indifference just didn’t seem an option. The kinds of figures Cullen was talking about couldn’t be further removed from the modest wage from MIRA on which he’d never be comfortable, let alone rich. What’s more, he’d been taken completely unawares by the revelations about how his recent project for Starwear could lead to him working with Nathan Strauss directly. No doubt about it, the Lombard offer was a million miles away from what he’d expected.
And then there was the Cullen factor; Chris had been completely unprepared for his openness and enormous charm, even though he knew the PR man had all the skills of a modern-day Merlin, and knew exactly how to use them for his own ends. Chris found himself saying, ‘What kind of package are you offering?’
In the lengthening shadows of the Boardroom, Cullen seemed to relax back in his chair. ‘A basic of a hundred and twenty thousand. As I said, the bonus has never been less than forty per cent. I can’t promise what be in future years, but this year we’re targeting around fifty-five percent.’
Chris did his best to conceal the rush of excitement sweeping through him- £120k. That was double his current salary. Possibly plus another sixty grand. MIRA offered no performance bonus. He’d known, in theory, that he was worth a lot more than MIRA was paying, but here it was, being offered to him on a plate. And a job he didn’t entirely dislike the sound of.
‘At your level,’ Cullen continued, ‘Your company car would be a fully’ fuelled BMW 7 series – top of the range. And Lombard would pay the equivalent of seventeen and a half per cent of your salary into a personal pension of your choosing.’
Chris nodded. Not even the Chairman of MIRA drove a prestige car. Getting this job would be like winning the lottery.
‘We look after people here,’ Cullen was continuing, ‘because we expect a lot from them. It’s important you’re sure you’d want to make the commitment.’
Chris nodded, aware that the tables had now ever-so-subtly turned. At which point Cullen said, ‘We find that our consultants who have settled home lives are happiest. You’re married?’
He asked it as though it were a given. Chris shook his head. He wasn’t even dating anybody at the moment – not that he could see what his private life had to do with Mike Cullen.
‘No one to speak of.’
Cullen nodded once, pursing his lips. ‘The long hours can be difficult –‘
‘I don’t have any competing interests, if that’s what you mean,’ Chris told him in level tones, ‘and no skeletons in the cupboard,’
‘Fine.’ Cullen smiled. ‘I’m pleased that’s settled.’
He said the words, Chris couldn’t help noticing, with a sense of relieved finality.
In the days following his meeting with Cullen, there were times Chris wished he did have someone special to talk things through with. Not that he’d mulled over the Lombard offer all on his own. It was far too important for that. Using the high-level network of contacts he’d built up at MIRA – City analysts and business journalists, others who’d had dealings with Lombard and Starwear – he’d made some carefully placed enquiries. What came back confirmed his impressions. Lombard, a different agency altogether from the one that had been sold to Buchanan Communications several years earlier, was widely acknowledged for having the most impressive, blue-chip client list of any agency in Britain, and Mike Cullen was the colossus of financial PR. While its culture of invisibility was the source of some jesting inside the Square Mile, the agency was respected nonetheless. It had achieved its unique status purely on the basis of its reputation. As for Starwear, Nathan Strauss’s track record spoke for itself.
Chris realised that he was being made an offer with all the right credentials, all the stimulation he could hope for, and money beyond his most fanciful dreams. So what was the downside? Long hours. Stress. No longer being the big shot of the company. But wasn’t it time for a new challenge?
He’d had several more conversations with Cullen on the telephone, and another visit to the agency to meet potential colleagues over a drink. Then there was the final showdown at MIRA over a lucrative new survey he’d launched, from which he was denied any form of profit-share; he’d never forget the shock on his boss’s face when he told him he was resigning. There was frantic footwork in the days that followed, as fellow directors proposed radical changes to his remuneration package which, only a month before, would have left him ecstatic. But it was too late now. Chris had made up his mind and there was to be no turning back. Plus, he’d already persuaded his political polling team to join him in three months’ time – not that the MIRA Board members knew anything about that yet.
He’d also found a new home for himself. Visiting friends in Fulham tor an early summer barbecue, he’d been passing an estate agent’s ‘Open House’ and had decided, on impulse, to have a look round. After his dark, basement studio in Islington, the Fulham place was magnificent. Large, spacious, light-filled rooms. A master bedroom with en-suite bathroom, and two spare rooms, one of which would convert to a bay-windowed study. But best of all, steps from the sitting room balcony led up to a sweeping roof terrace that looked directly out across the Hurlingham Club, with its manicured lawns and rolling parklands. The rhododendrons were in full, purple majesty, and around the perimeter of the gardens, pine trees swayed back and forth in the late-afternoon breeze. It was the kind of view that made you feel you were in the middle of the country.
Judith would love this, he found himself thinking involuntarily – before checking himself. She hadn’t been a part of his life for seven years, and he irritated himself by letting her haunt his thoughts. Their romance had blossomed at Oxford, and had continued when he’d moved down to London to start work. Intense though it had been at the time, and heartbroken though he was when it ended, it was all in the past. The very distant past, at that. Anyway, why did he keep going back in his mind to Judith? He’d had several relationships since, with wonderful, sassy, intelligent girls. There’d been breathless days and sultry nights since Judith, just as there would be again.
Now as he stood on the Fulham balcony, surveying the wooded grounds and flowering shrubberies before him, he decided it was time to open a new chapter. Making a rare, impulsive decision, Chris decided to buy the property then and there.
A week before his September start at Lombard, Chris met a few friends for a celebratory drink on HMS Queen Mary. He was standing at the bar, waiting for a fresh round, when the TV up in the corner caught his attention. Trevor McDonald was reading the ITN News, behind him a picture of Nathan Strauss.
‘Can you turn that up, please?’ He nodded towards the TV.
‘Sure, mate.’ The barman hiked up the volume.
The news bulletin had moved to a woman reporter outside the Dorchester, behind her a phalanx of ambulances and police cars. It had been shortly after-seven o’clock that evening, the reporter explained, when the body had been found by a motor car salesman. Chris felt a sudden dread as the image of a stretcher, covered in a dark blanket, was carried into the back of an ambulance. Only that afternoon, Nathan Strauss had handed over a £5 million donation to Distress Line, the organisation that specialised in helping those who felt suicidal. It was, she declared, a horrific irony that within hours of the donation, Nathan Strauss had himself committed suicide…
As Chris stood at the bar, the noise of the festivities rising behind him, he felt suddenly dizzy. Slapping two notes down on the bar, he hurried towards the Gents, where he found a cubicle and stood, forehead pressed against the steel of the porthole catch, trying to take it all in. Nathan Strauss dead. It was just too overwhelming to absorb. What on earth would drive someone like him to suicide? And who would take over at Starwear? Working with Nathan had been a large part of the reason for his interest in Lombard – a very large part. Since that first evening with Mike Cullen, he’d spent many hours mulling over the future, and how he’d work with Nathan. Now this. He knew he would never have accepted Cullen s offer if it hadn’t included being the prime creator of Starwear III. The big bucks, the bonus, the BMW, even his new flat now seemed tawdry and trivial. But it was too late now to go back: he’d burnt his boats at MIRA, and without Nathan Strauss his supposedly glittering new career at Lombard could be a short-lived cul-de-sac. With a lurch of emotion that was to become familiar over the coming months he realised he’d made a terrible mistake.
He left HMS Queen Mary a short while later, no longer in the mood to play. As he walked towards Big Ben, past lamps looped like pearls along the embankment, he was so deep in thought he failed to notice walking about fifty yards behind him. The man with the narrow hooded eyes and camera case slung over his shoulder, who glanced watchfully about him as he followed Chris along the pavement. The same man who had spent the last two hours on the bridge of the HMS Queen Mary, shooting images.
Everyone who’d arrived at Chris’s drinks party had been faithfully captured and digitally stored for future retrieval. It had been one of his more enjoyable assignments of late, thought Harry Penton. He’d even managed a couple of quiet pints, thanks to the Lombard new boy.
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