This is the opening. It introduces the three main characters:
“Do you realize how unusual a man you are?”
Faced with a question that had no right answer, James Soutar let the American’s words hang in the air. Thirteen months had made him a reluctant expert on job interviews, but this one had thrown him off balance from the beginning.
Hans Van Asham ignored the small moment of silence. “I’m serious,” he continued. “I’ve interviewed candidates in three countries and was frankly despairing of finding anyone who could meet the challenge—and here you are. The job is a perfect match for you. What do you say, James. Will you help me keep my boats going?”
The American surged enthusiastically to his feet, forcing James to match the movement in self-defense, “You’re not a man to waste words. That’s good. That’s very good.” Hans Van Asham grasped his hand in an over-firm, double handed grip. “I, on the other hand, talk excessively. I make money that way. Your job is to keep our four boats going. I’ll talk our way into reasonable charters. You get the boats to the right place, at the right time, and that will do all the talking you need.”
“Congratulations, Mr. Soutar,” Gai Wilson took advantage of a tiny pause in the flow of words. “I am very pleased to have my judgment vindicated. As Mr. Van Asham has said, I believed from the first interview that you were the perfect man for the position.”
He resisted the temptation to ask why, contenting himself with a nod of acknowledgment as he took the hand that she offered. His current detachment might fade shortly and he too would be bubbling with the excitement affecting the woman and his new employer. Judy would be over the moon when he told her. It had been a bad year for her as well. The thought made him glance at his watch. She would be waiting for him now.
“Are you late to meet someone, James?” Hans interpreted the glance correctly.
“Yes, my wife. She’ll have finished work, and should be waiting for me outside Mrs. Wilson’s office.”
Gai Wilson interrupted. “That’s not a problem, James. Describe your wife to me and I’ll have one of my staff meet her and bring her here...and please call me Gai.”
James gave a verbal thumbnail sketch of Judy, concentrating on the clothes she wore to work this morning, and the woman relayed his words over the ubiquitous cell phone.
Hans was now all business. In the fifteen minutes before Judy joined them, he settled the details of payment, credit cards, the initial familiarization itinerary and the immediate objectives he wanted James to achieve.
“I’m particularly impressed by your computer literacy. The emergence of the web has been a godsend for people like me and I’ve come to rely on it for communication. Contract clerical and technical services on Grand Cayman are our only support. You will operate out of a suitcase for quite some time to come and your portable computer and the phone will be our only links. Your first priority is therefore one of familiarization with our system. I’ll spend tomorrow bringing you up to speed and then you’ll be on your own. You are the right man, James. You already know better than I what has to be done.”
Judy appeared and the businessman in the American switched off. He beamed at her as she approached the table, and exuded a characteristic over-blown charm. James was immensely proud of his wife as she handled the situation with a composed friendliness and the American was quietly disarmed. She did it to everyone. It allowed a relaxed conversation to develop between Hans and the two women.
James welcomed the breathing space; his whole world had changed and he needed a few moments to think.
The initial interview had been normal enough. Gai Wilson, a senior consultant in the agency, conducting it. A stylishly dressed woman about his age, she’d asked all the standard questions, openly using a printed pro-forma to take copious notes in a large legible script. She signaled the end of the interview by the standard method of asking him if he would like to add any points. The first odd note was when she chose to socialize for over half an hour.
She rang several times in the next fortnight, checking relatively minor points each time and taking such pains to reassure him that he found it difficult not to believe she was afraid she might lose him. This constant attention made it hard for him to remain calm. The position offered every management responsibility and autonomy he could ask for and the remuneration package had a dreamlike quality. It contained all the things the last year denied him.
In this second interview, Gai Wilson began by almost flirting with him, an odd, girlish affectation on her part. Then she escorted him from her office to this meeting, leading the way along Collins Street and through the lobby of the Regent Hotel up to 35th Floor and the Atrium restaurant where Hans Van Asham waited for them.
The American’s accent identified him as West Coast, possibly California, though there were odd touches of his Dutch background in the pronunciation of some consonants, but his business connections seemed to be exclusively East Coast and Offshore. James already knew his business office was on the Grand Cayman. He greeted James effusively, rising quickly to his feet and using his left hand to grasp James’ right elbow as they shook hands.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he said warmly. “Gai has sung your praises from the beginning, and I am definitely inclined to her view. You seem to be the very man I am looking for.”
James Soutar had nodded his acknowledgment of the woman’s contribution whilst returning the handshake, moderating his grip to firm as soon as his host relaxed the initial macho crush
There had been no further mention on the position since that initial greeting, an hour ago. Instead, a three-way conversation on general subjects provided some clear impressions of his companions; and he didn’t like what he saw.
The American was shrewd, but a bully. He made over-generalizations that contained hard kernels of truth he could use to batter down any challenge, using his position as potential employer and client to make those challenges tentative. Yet, he actually demanded opposition he could overwhelm with words. He respected those who could stem the tide; provided always that he won in the end. James pushed him hard once, relenting only when he recognized the glint of real anger in the man.
Gai Wilson, on the other hand, was recovering from a recent divorce, and James suspected a younger woman was involved. She was hungry for re-assurance and it made her vulnerable, but not so vulnerable that she didn’t consciously use her position to draw the attention she wanted. He wondered how many job candidates found out too late there was more than a touch of the Black Widow in Gai Wilson.
“You told me in the first interview you already have an Amex card, James,” she said, interrupting his thoughts. He guessed she was tired of Hans monopolizing Judy’s attention. “I’ll follow Hans’ instructions to have your billing point changed to his Grand Cayman office as soon as you sign these forms and fill in the card number.” She smiled brightly at him, a touch of desperation in her eyes, as she slid the form across the low table towards him and offered a gold Parker pen for the signature.
“Thank you, Gai,” he said warmly. “You’ve made this whole process painless. I can only admire your efficiency and your charm.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the slight lift of his wife’s eyebrow and broadened his smile to include her, knowing she would understand his motive as clearly as if he had explained it all to her.
“Now that’s out of the way. No more work!” Hans said definitely. “We’ve all got something to celebrate. I have the man I want. Gai has earned a nice fat fee. James has got a challenge worthy of his talents...and I suspect Judy has what she wants as well.” He smiled at Judy and James could see the near lust in his eyes.
Hardly surprising, James had never completely understood what he’d done to deserve so beautiful a wife. Judy was now forty-four, but she remained ageless; having accepted the passing years with the calm poise so essential a part of her that they left her unmarked by their passage. No one could mistake her for a girl, but everyone who met her, children or adults, seemed instantly to find her exactly the right age. Their failure to have children themselves was a tragedy he was only coming to appreciate fully with the passing of the years. A belated recognition of what he considered his selfishness; it made him uncomfortable.
He endured the rest of the evening, part of his mind already engaged on the task before him. All four ships were over-age bulk carriers, crewed by third world seamen and officered by a hodgepodge of nationalities. Three were engaged on the iron ore trade between Port Hedland and Europe and the fourth was to load wheat at Portland for India. He would drive down and see the Sankara on Wednesday. He already guessed the Masters were taking advantage of Hans’ ignorance by the suspicious neatness of the operating costs he’d seen as part of the initial interview. It wasn’t important in itself, but it might be the surface indication of a greater problem. If they were lazy in covering their tracks, they were hardly likely to run the ships efficiently.
“Well, James. I see you have already started working for me. We’ve only had half your attention for the past hour. Perhaps it is time to call it a night. You and Judy will have much to discuss. Would you like to book into the hotel rather than face the drive home?”
“Thank you, no,” James dealt with the last question first. “Judy has to go to work tomorrow and it wouldn’t be convenient. We’ll get a taxi and pick up the car tomorrow.”
He didn’t see any point denying his abstraction. It had been more obvious than he’d hoped, but the American seemed to understand.
“I’ll see you in my suite at ten tomorrow. You have the number?”
“If you can run our boats as economically as you use words, we’re bound to be successful.”
James smiled a little wryly and waited as Judy made her farewell to Gai and Hans.