‘What the bloody hell do you mean, abstain?’ yelled Septimus down the phone.
Cosmia fretted as her brother turned a worrying shade of puce; she hated this internecine battle, but knew that if the family firm were to survive beyond its 200th anniversary, Alaric and Amos had to be forced off the board. Next to her Ulysses sat motionless and poker faced; Cosmia found him unsettling, although there was no denying his considerable charm.
Septimus was still yelling – whatever Malachi was saying was clearly not what Septimus wanted to hear. Eventually the phone went down with a crash, immediately followed by another as Septimus hurled his coffee mug at the wall. Coffee grounds spattered several square yards of the pale yellow paint and pottery shards ricocheted off various surfaces.
His rage vented, Septimus sagged into his leather swivel chair and gazed at the others. After a long moment of silence, he took a deep breath.
‘Malachi is going to abstain. Alaric will win. After all this, Alaric will win.’ His face, now drained of colour, was bad enough to prompt Ulysses to pour a glass of whisky and push it across the desk. Septimus ignored it.
Cosmia was too shocked to speak. Malachi had always been an ally – he had backed Septimus from the start. She couldn’t understand it.
‘What would it take to change his mind?’ The cool, dark Bostonian voice broke the silence.
Septimus sighed heavily. ‘He says Dainty has threatened to divorce him and take the kids if he votes for me. She means it – Dainty’s a hard-nosed witch. Very matey with my ex-wife. We’ll get no change out of her, and Malachi won’t risk his marriage. We’re stuffed.’
Ulysses gazed out of the window and said nothing.
The silence got heavier. After a gloomy couple of minutes, Ulysses turned from the window and crossed to the white board on the wall. Wiping a few coffee grounds from the board, Ulysses scribbled down the names of Gargle shareholders. ‘OK. Let’s look at our options. It ain’t over yet, my friends, believe me….’
Alaric, chairman of the Gargle board, clutched his notes with a white-knuckled hand and read the next sentence through clenched teeth. ‘It is proposed that the board accept the offer from Upland Hygiene to buy 51% of Gargle Antiseptics shares, for shares in a new holding company Gargle Group plc, on a one for one basis. Is the motion seconded?’ He sent a killing glance in Septimus’s direction before glaring at Ulysses, who responded as expected.
Septimus heard the blood rushing through his arteries and felt the sickening vacuum in his guts as he waited for the vote. Alaric went clockwise round the table.
At that, Septimus’s jaw dropped. ‘You were going to abstain!’
Malachi lifted his shoulders and grimaced in embarrassment. Septimus felt as though he’d been winded and almost missed the next vote. It was Annunciata, Alaric’s favourite.
After a pause for dramatic effect, she smiled coyly. ‘Yes,’ she whispered, with a sly little glance at Ulysses, blushing as she caught the American’s eye.
Alaric’s vote was irrelevant – everyone did the mental arithmetic and came to the same incredible answer. Shouts of disbelief in various accents of fury and triumph rattled the tray of champagne glasses on the sideboard.
In the office outside, Alaric’s secretary Jane heard the din and went to get the champagne from the fridge. As she came out of the kitchen she collided with Alaric. ‘Get out of my way, you bloody woman!’ he barked, storming off down the corridor with Amos at his heels.
Septimus leaned back in his father’s battered old chair and grinned to himself. After almost six months in charge of the Gargle Group, the triumphal glow hadn’t dimmed one iota. It had taken half his life, but he’d got control of the family firm. Fancy Annunciata falling for Ulysses! He was a dark horse, that one. He gave a fleeting thought to Amos, house-bound after a stroke – strange, thought Septimus; you’d think it’d be purple-faced Alaric who’d have keeled over but the choleric old brute was going strong.
Now chairman of a plc – all right, they weren’t listed, but it sounded so much better than being a limited company and after all the group had a turnover of more than £100 million now – Septimus mused happily on his plans for the Gargle future.
Jane buzzed him: ‘Theo’s here, Septimus. He says it’s urgent.’
Finance director Theo Disciple bustled in, his neat form immaculately dressed.
‘I think we may have a very serious problem with our American subsidiary,’ said Theo.
Septimus frowned. ‘But …’
‘If you’re about to say that Ulysses will handle it, let me tell you that Ulysses is the problem,’ said Theo.
But before he could say more, Jane buzzed through. ‘I know you said you didn’t want to be disturbed, but Mr. Bogle is on the videophone and insists on speaking to you,’ she said.
Theo went white and groped for a chair. Septimus stabbed a button and Ulysses’s dark features materialised on screen. ‘What’s up, coz?’ said Septimus.
Ulysses smiled, the gleaming teeth visible via transatlantic fibre optics. ‘Morning, my friend. Something I wanted to share with you.’
Septimus felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. ‘What?’ he said, attention sharply focused on the digitised American face. He heard Theo curse softly.
‘Well, my dear chap,’ oozed the Bogle voice. ‘I know blood is thicker than water, but we are very distantly related, after all. You won’t like this, old pal, but I’m taking over the company.’
Septimus laughed, disbelieving. ‘What? You can’t!’
‘Oh, but I can,’ said the New York lawyer. ‘Theo got all the documents this morning. I’ve got a definite 46% and am very confident of the other 5%.’
Septimus did some rapid calculations. ‘But who..?’
Ulysses chuckled. ‘Ask your children. But if you like, I can trigger the Blue Book takeover code which will cost the company a fortune to fight – and you’ll still lose. So why not give in gracefully, old buddy? I’ll see you at….’
Septimus hung up before the treacherous colonial upstart Bogle could finish. He felt icy cold except for a tiny spark of white heat somewhere deep in his soul. ‘We’ll see, dear cousin, we’ll see,’ he muttered to himself as he stared out of the window over the Sudston factory which English Gargles had run for 200 years. ‘Over my dead body.’
– end of book one –