‘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.
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.
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…’
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.’
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