6. Pressure Point

‘Your good health, Mr Temple.’

The industrialist settles back into the plush armchair, savouring his brandy. ‘I must say, Mr Starrick, I can’t thank you enough for all your assistance.’ Around them, the warm room oozes with wealth. Affluence and comfort wrapped in deep shadows. Varnished oak-panelled walls gleam golden-brown. A large desk of rich mahogany and brass, scattered with papers and a lonely silver handbell.

The host raises his glass. ‘Not at all, my friend. Least I could do.’ He taps his cigar into the glass ashtray. ‘More competitors on the market. Cheaper fares for the Hansom cabs and the omnibuses. The Star. Tilling. Stanford’s. People want value for money now. And your carriages cost, don’t they? Horse feed and stabling, polish and repairs. A reputable business, excellent quality, don’t get me wrong. Black carriages, high quality, good and sturdy. A decent solid enterprise, all things considered.’ He smiles encouragingly. ‘You’re nearly out of the woods, aren’t you?’

‘Nearly.’ Temple nods ruefully. ‘But it’s been tough, you know? Supply and demand.’

‘I specialise,’ Starrick smiles. ‘Businesses exactly like yours. Family-owned, down on their luck, money problems. Problems that can’t be solved by the banks, because they specialise in other areas too, such as being dumb and stubborn and unimaginative as shit.’

He settles back in his armchair, stroking his goatee. The industrialist smiles back. Man-to-man, both sticking it to the banks.

‘So then,’ Starrick continues. ‘I’m not a loan shark. We’re not talking about hundreds of percentage interest here. The shares I’ve acquired in your company stock could see it safely through to the end of the year.’

Temple frowns. ‘What about security?’

Starrick puts down his glass. ‘I’ve taken an equity position. Forty percent.’

Temple blinks. Maybe this is some kind of test. He swallows hard. Blood pounding in his ears.

‘The stock’s worth nothing,’ he murmurs. ‘Not when it’s losing money.’

Starrick nods, like he’s pleased.

‘Right now it isn’t,’ he agrees. ‘But it will be worth something soon, right? I’m not talking about a temporary transfer to tide you over. I’m taking an equity position, and I’m going to keep it.’

‘…Keep it?’ Temple stares at him, stunned. Forty percent equity, and a gift of stock? New investment?

‘I always do,’ Starrick shrugs. ‘Call it sentimental. I like to have a little slice of all the businesses I help. Most people are glad to make the arrangement, when times are tough.’

Temple says nothing.

‘In return, you sign over half your business to me, as the new majority shareholder, and the money’s all yours. With interest, of course.’

Temple swallows. Frowns. Looks away. Examines his options.

‘Sure,’ he shrugs. ‘I, uh…I guess that’s okay.’

Starrick nods and reaches down to open a drawer. Pulls out a printed document and slides it across the desk.

‘I prepared this.’

Temple leans forward and squints. A stock-transfer contract, forty percent equity. For a business that was booming and worth much, not long ago, and might be again, very soon. A sprawling warehouse by the river, bustling with industry in its halcyon days. Ten luxury carriages. Twenty-four horses, all told. His livelihood.

He peers closer. Blinks. Swallows.

‘It…it says ‘joint partnership’…’

‘Can’t do it any other way,’ Starrick soothes. ‘Like I told you, I specialise. I know this corner of the market. Folks down on their luck, struggling against rival businesses, looking for help. We can throw you a life buoy, sure, but we can’t do it without your rope first. You won’t get better anyplace else. Fact is, you won’t get a damn thing anyplace else. It’s a cutthroat city, London.’

Temple shivers. Unease crawls through his gut.

‘You’re a man of many virtues, Mr Temple.’ Starrick’s voice is low, soft. Like honey and velvet. ‘You’re a driven, hardworking soul who knows how to give orders to the right people. And I respect that. But your company’s floundering. Sign the contract, and we’re back in business.’

After a long pause Temple nods and pulls out his pen. Stretches forward to sign in both places against the cold hard wood of the mahogany desk. Starrick watches him.

‘Excellent. I assume you want the money in your operating account?’ he asks. ‘Where the other banks won’t see it?’

Temple nods again, dazed. ‘That would be good.’

Starrick scribbles a note. ‘It’ll be there in an hour.’

Temple exhales in relief. ‘Thank you.’

‘So now I’m the one who’s exposed,’ Starrick leans back in his armchair, drumming his fingers. ‘Forty percent equity, plenty of risk. Not a nice feeling at all.’

Temple swallows. Looks at the floor. ‘That won’t be a problem.’

Starrick nods. ‘I’m sure there won’t.’

He leans forward and rings the handbell in front of him. It tinkles loudly in the hushed room. The door swings open. A gaunt-faced man with a ponytail steps in.

‘The Temple dossier, please,’ Starrick orders.

The man with the ponytail nods and closes the door. Temple waits, breathing hard. Silence for a few long moments, then the door opens. The other man walks over to the desk. Carrying a thin brown folder. He places it in front of Starrick, walks back out and quietly closes the door. Starrick pushes the folder over the desk.

‘Let’s talk vices, Mr Temple,’ he smiles. Tone light and casual.

Uneasy, Temple leans forward and takes the folder. Opens it.

And his blood runs chill.

Photographs.

Several big eight-by-tens, black and white. The first: a boy, smiling shyly at the camera from under his messy tangle of dark hair. An open, honest, trusting smile.

He shivers. ‘Is…is this some kind of joke?’

Starrick slides a letter across the table. ‘I seldom joke.’ Temple stares down at it, frozen in disbelief.

To Whom It May Concern,

Please accept this letter as notice that I will be resigning my position as senior chairman of Temple Transport…

Dazed, his eyes stutter down the page. Each sentence a knife twisting in his gut.

…due to recent pressures I feel that I have little choice but to step down under the circumstances…

…I cannot effectively perform as company chairman and thus see my resignation as the only suitable option.

Sincerely,

He grips the edge of the desk with white knuckles. His head is throbbing. Blood buzzing in his ears. Starrick pushes the glass decanter across. ‘Have another drink. You’ll need it.’

Temple gulps. ‘…Please…’

Starrick stares at him through half-lidded eyes, a cold reptilian gaze. ‘Lovely boy. Percy, isn’t it? I must say, he was very keen to confide in us. Came to us especially. I suppose visiting Cleveland Street on a late Friday night keeps it secret, eh? Men of such…appetites, for young boys like him. Clients come and go, nothing signed, no questions asked? Fifteen years is an awful long time for people to forget. All the old rats come crawling back.’

Temple bristles, half-rising from his chair. ‘It’s a damn lie! I…I swear! Upon my honour!’

Starrick crushes him with a glare. ‘Your honour…carries little weight.’

‘How dare you!’

Unperturbed, Starrick swirls his glass of brandy. Lets the silence stretch. ‘Your family’s fortune, however…’

Oh no

Starrick smiles. His eyes don’t. ‘I wonder what they would offer, to keep your sordid secrets out of the newspapers…’

Temple swallows hard. Forehead glistening with sweat.

Starrick shakes his head. ‘Tsk-tsk. Such a shame. Think of your loved ones. They’ll be spat at in the street. Filth through your letterbox. Bricks through the window. A respectable gentleman of the community, who fiddles with young boys. Not to mention your workforce. Third-generation dock workers, people with families. Toiling for a pittance, slaving away for their wives and kids. How d’you think they’d feel, when they find out your…proclivities? Hm? Imagine the scandal. What will the Board of Directors think? I’m afraid your current position is…untenable.’

He taps another photograph. Temple forces himself to look and – no no no – Mary. Coming out of the bakery on Farringdon Road. No-one else has that ornate silver clasp in their hair. A precious wedding gift.

Starrick gazes at him over the rim of his glass. ‘He’s eight now, isn’t he? Your boy. Elliot. Irons on his legs, poor kid. Comes last in every race. St Paul’s Primary, isn’t it? Busy roads, though. On his walk to school.’

‘You…you can’t…’

Starrick nods with grim satisfaction. ‘I thought so.’ He reclines back into the armchair, fingers steepled towards the ceiling.

‘Your family are safe only at my discretion. I know a dame who’ll claw out eyes to have jewellery of that quality. Hard men with such…hunger, for boys like that. The worst kinds of people.’ He shakes his head mournfully. ‘‘It’s shameful what they’ll do, when they see a boy walking alone at night. When they see a woman at home. All alone. No-one to hear her.’

Temple is shaking with outrage. Hands balled into fists. ‘You bastard…you…you sick bastard-’

The door clicks shut. A faint cough. He jerks around.

The gaunt man with the ponytail is standing beside the open door, gazing vacantly out of the window to his left. Feet planted. Hands clasped together at his waist.

Brass glints across his knuckles.

Temple stares at him. Then back at Starrick. Eyes wide with terror.

‘Now-now, Mr Temple.’ Starrick’s voice is hard as ice. ‘Don’t try anything foolish. You might regret it later. For your family’s sake. You want to see your boy reach his ninth birthday?’

The industrialist is frozen in his chair. Stricken with fear and dread and agonised disbelief.

‘Step down, Mr Temple.’ Starrick’s voice is gentle. Soft. Intimate, like a lover’s caress. ‘Either you’re dismissed in disgrace, no company pension, no family future, or…you take the initiative. Save yourself the burden. Do it for your loved ones. Resign. It’s just a signature.’

The silence stretches. Temple slumps in his chair. Defeated. Humiliated. Broken. Finally extends a trembling hand to scrawl his signature. The pen scratches loudly.

‘All right.’ He croaks. ‘All right. I’ll step down. Please don’t hurt my family. Please.’

Starrick smiles. ‘Very well.’ Leans forward and pulls the letter back towards him. The dry paper rasps across the wood, loud in the silence.

‘Forty percent equity, and you save your company’s future. And your family’s needs. Safety. Protection. In return, Starrick Industries takes joint corporate ownership of your firm. Your dockside warehouse, your fleet of river barges. And the horse-drawn coaches in your possession. All of them. For our needs. You signed the contract. Legally binding. Non-negotiable. Don’t go to the police. Don’t try to be a hero. Or your boy might have an unfortunate accident. Busy city streets, rushing carts. So sad. Or your wife…a burglary gone wrong. So tragic.’

He taps the folder of photographs.

‘That’s my security, Mr Temple,’ he smiles, cruel and victorious. ‘But like you just assured me, I’m sure there won’t be a problem. Good day.’

Mr Temple sits rooted to the spot, tight-lipped and shuddering with dread. Then he nods. Lurches away from the armchair on shaky legs, and wobbles unsteadily towards the door.


© 2017 Tom Burton

16 thoughts on “6. Pressure Point

  1. Nicely done. Villain is sleazy but also seems a very shrewd businessman and likely fairly smart, a nice touch. I do like that there was no attempt to draw Craig in yet. Keeping that separation in the story line seems good at this point.
    I wonder if you allow the facade to drop too soon then though? I’m curious why he tips his hand so early – might it be unproductive to his endgame? Perhaps if he let the business man feel secure, pay back most of his loan maybe, then demanded more money, or attempted to be more than a silent partner etc. you could have the business man object and then unveil the blackmail shocker. If you set him up to look totally legitimate with only the slightest hints at shady motives and then turn around later on and show him doing the hostile takeover (after building trust with the reader) it could make for a more surprising and impactful turn of events?

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂 I wanted to convey the idea of this organised crime syndicate masquerading as a semi-legitimate company (similar to loan sharking) that reels in prospective businesses and then hooks them with hostile takeovers via extortion / blackmail / greasing the right palms etc. Hopefully the buildup through the story will pay off at the end – I wanted to portray an Affably Evil villain who initially seems charming and civil but soon drops the facade to reveal how vicious he can be. Hope it makes for an intriguing antagonist.
      Some great novels present the villains as nasty pieces of work from the start, from Brian Jacques’ Redwall series to many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books (e.g. the Zec in ‘One Shot’, Plato the Mexican in ’61 Hours’, or the Duncans in ‘Worth Dying For’). Their methods are brutal, their motives are shady and they rule by fear (all textbook cliches) yet they still make for compelling villains even when introduced as truly vicious people from their first appearance. So the legitimacy angle has great scope for explaining how the villain infiltrates local businesses and builds a trade monopoly / drives out his competitors. But I wasn’t intending to build initial sympathy from the audience and then yank the rug out from under them later. Building understandable motives and making the villain somewhat relatable, definitely. But as in any decent story his actions and methods should shape the negative that the hero clashes against, as it’s the hero who we’re actively rooting to succeed.
      The focus in this chapter was intended to be the carriage acquisitions for their own purposes (as they become more important later in the story), not so much the effect on their director. The carriages are themselves a means to an end; they aren’t meant to be the endgame. Having the blackmail so soon was meant to portray the viciousness of this gang and how they operate; once they hook you in, there’s no backing out. That gradual silent takeover is really well done in Fargo Season 3; one businessman offers another a lifeline, but gradually spreads through his company and acquires new contracts as an equal partner. The relationship between the director and my main antagonist was always intended to be a subservient one, rather than an equal partnership where both characters are given equal importance through the story.

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  2. Some glorious craftsmanship on the tension in this chapter! I really like that we delve into some new characters and got briefly separated from Craig’s storyline to explore this event. I also really like the way the director’s feelings in this situation fluctuate, keeping the reader on the edge. He starts out nervous, becomes reassured enough to sign over the documents, thinks everything will be okay, and then gets some fear tactics brought down heavily on him that lets everyone know these aren’t people to mess with. These people are calculated, and don’t take things to chance.

    ‘Affluence and comfort, wrapped in deep shadows.’ – I took a moment for this line, its just so great.

    I like the portrayal of the thin man a lot, I got the impression he enjoys doing this kind of thing to people on the regular, and probably has many times before. He is matter of fact, but also has a dark, no-remorse, malicious humour. He most likely thrives from making his ‘clients’ feel powerless. The tone of the narrative has also taken a bit of a shift to the more shady, but there are still the subtly amusing moments (the what-can-you-do-look) and I think it transitions really well from the previous chapters. This chapter is captivating and creates the ‘uh-oh’ at the end that makes you want to read forward.

    I also like the title of this chapter, Pressure Point! Has a sort of combat reference? (like martial artists that can apply pressure to pressure points and take opponents down – kind of like the thin man does to the director’s business, pretty much) as well as just the sense that the director feels considerably more pressure now that his personal life has mixed into his business life. I really like the lengths of your paragraphs in these chapters, they convey everything clearly with a lot of imagery, but are also not overly long. They each stand out and make more of a statement this way, and I think it lets you take in all the details.

    Overall, this chapter feels highly substantiated! A tiny thing I wonder if it would be good to add is slightly more resistance or insecurity from the director at having to sign over half of his business – even if its just brief internal panic. I was just thinking of that show Dragon’s Den and how much people hate giving away parts of their business ;D Perhaps a couple of lines of him examining his options in a little more detail might just add an extra edge to that part? It still comes across well without it though, as I can see the director is just trying to be as agreeable and accommodating to the thin man as he can because he’s scared and probably has an inkling that the people he’s chosen to deal with aren’t friendly.

    All in all, great work!! 😀

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    1. Thank you so much! Loving your feedback 🙂 Glad you think I’m a budding wordsmith [I mostly just word-vomit and hope it makes some vague sense, haha]. I find that some villains are entertaining because we can understand their motives and perhaps empathise with them (Professor Moriarty, Cersei Lannister), while others are great because sometimes the audience just needs someone to absolutely HATE (e.g. Dolores Umbridge) because how they relish making people suffer and dominating them. Makes it more cathartic and a bigger satisfaction when they get their comeuppance from the hero [yaaay payback 😉 ] I could certainly add a brief personal anecdote for some of the innocent individuals affected, all dependent on his business for their livelihoods, to better illustrate his regret at putting their jobs on the line. (e.g. ‘two kids at home, never late for work a day in his life’; ‘always a cheery smile for his passengers, no matter the rain and wind.’) Something to humanise the cost, and the knock-on effect for his workers.
      Fantastic comments! Looking forward to more! 🙂

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    1. Thanks! So glad you enjoyed it. 😀 I feel like great stories are only as good as their villains, so I wanted to make a memorable impression without being over-the-top; this well-connected manipulative schemer who has other people do his dirty work, but nonetheless keeps a polite courteous facade to the people trapped under his thumb.

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      1. Haha, great! 😀 Very happy it hooked you in.
        So it didn’t feel too heavy-handed or overtly *mwah-hah-hah, I’m evil lol’, did it? I was hoping to illustrate just how crafty these crooks are at getting victims hook, line and sinker, but wasn’t sure if it was too early to show their hand in blackmail/extortion. Does it work without being too on-the-nose?

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      2. Oh definitely. I like that he’s very buddy-buddy at first, all “no, no, no, I’M for the PEOPLE, unlike those scum-riddled banks” and then he, as soon as he gets what he wants, is like “Hoo-hoo-hoo, oi buddy, I got some dirt on you. Also: I can murder your family”.

        For a villain, he’s extreme, but I think with the dirty, gritty setting, it works out real nice. The city itself seems to be pretty harsh (with how well you describe it, and how strongly the vibes are from it, it might even be considered a character), so I like that the villain seems even harsher.

        Playing a little more into the “buddy-buddy” part might even enhance the drastic change–but that’s just my opinion personally, as someone who really enjoyed how quickly and sharply he turned. I think I liked it so much because it really showed that there probably isn’t an ounce of good in the guy. Not someone you’d want to trust, ever. I mean, he seems untrustworthy at the start of his intro, simply because he seems like he’s trying to manipulate Temple a bit, but then he does that 180 and you’re like, “wow, now THAT is one evil son-of-a-bitch”.

        And his harsh manner rivals the natural dog-eat-dog vibes of the city, which is good–going back to the “city might be considered a character” thing. Which is most certainly NOT a bad thing, if anything, it’s impressive. It’s hard to get such a strong feeling from a setting. But, if the villain weren’t just as heavy-handed as the city (or more than, as your slick villain seems to be), it would dim the conflict between the hero and the villain, I think.

        All in all, he’s a very intimidating guy. As bad as the city is, he seems to have the system locked into his pocket, which makes him the ultimate evil. But now I’m talking in circles, lol.

        He’s a very sharp villain! Very devilish! Kind of petrifying, actually. I’m interested to see how he and Craig will cross paths, and what our hero will do to try and thwart him 😀

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      3. Thanks ever so much! ❤ Loving your in-depth feedback so far – excellent points. 🙂 I wanted to illustrate this villain playing a long game & using subterfuge and manipulation to get what he wants. Like a viper in the grass; he's all smiles and charm and soft-spoken honeyed words…and THEN the fangs come out. 🐍

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      4. Absolutely! Anytime! And, that’s DEFINITELY the vibes I was getting from him, for sure. He feels 100% like a snake. If you asked me to sum him up in one word, that’s probably what I’d say, lol

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  3. Well… This story is indeed becoming more and more engaging as it proceeds. I’m really loving the new twists and turns that you are bringing about in this tale. Will read the rest ASAP! 😊✌️

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  4. I loved the suspense in this chapter, Tom. There’s a palpable tension, and I love your attention to detail. Even the smallest expressions, sounds and movements add to the overall depth of the scene. You are so good at setting your scenes and then building within them!

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    1. So kind of you to say, April! 😀 Your comments always delight me every time. ❤ I'm so thrilled you enjoyed the change of pace in this one. Every story's only as strong as its hero & villain, so I'm really glad you found this such an immersive chapter for the villain's perspective! Thanks ever so much for always being such an encouraging friend + really excited to share my next tribute story for you this Friday! 🦊

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