After Will storms out of the business meeting with the two ‘Arab Princes’, Rachel turns up at his flat (the following day) to tell him that (amazingly!) the deal is still going through – but with one small caveat; Michael wants to meet Stephan Le Blanc.
The receptionist throws me a sympathetic smile as I look up from the pages of The Economist. It’s only a flicker, and probably better described as ‘awkward’. It’s the smile of someone who doesn’t know whether they should be smiling, or not, and is apprehensive about what might happen next.
We’ve met before, the receptionist and I, many times in fact. But always I was Edwin, calling to take Nathia out to lunch, or to the theatre, or to drop off some flowers. Today – although I’m in full Edwin costume, complete with Edwin glasses, playing the part of Edwin – I have no idea how much the audience knows. And though I think it’s unlikely that Nathia has admitted I wasn’t her boyfriend, that for four long years she was paying me to help conceal the fact that she’s actually gay, she has probably told them that I’m no longer in her life. Yet here I am, sitting on a couch, browsing financial magazines, in the reception area of Steele & Richmond, Venture Capitalists.
“Edwin!” says Nathia as she comes round the corner. “What a surprise!” So, I am still Edwin – the ex-boyfriend. “Caroline, if you could hold my calls for, say, ten minutes.” Caroline nods rapidly, and then blushes.
“What the hell are you doing here?” hisses Nathia as soon as we’re out of reception.
“What? Can’t a man pop in on his ex-girlfriend when he’s in the neighbourhood?”
“Shut up!” growls Nathia. “Save it for when we’re in my office.”
As soon as we’re in the enormous room that serves as Nathia’s office she closes the glass door behind us, and lowers the blinds. I open my mouth to speak, but she stops me with a hand gesture and then uses a remote on her desk to switch on an enormous plasma television mounted on the wall opposite. She turns the volume up, then perches on the end of her desk, arms crossed.
“You’ve got ten minutes,” she says. “And it had better be good.” I remove my glasses slowly, and wait just long enough to create a sufficiently dramatic effect. I am an actor, after all.
“I’m Stephan LeBlanc,” I say. And I get the reaction I was hoping for.
“What do you mean you’re Stephan LeBlanc!” spits Nathia, her eyes flashing with rage.
“I mean I have a client who hired me to play the part of Jarad’s business partner,” I explain.
“Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“You’ve been in a business meeting with Jarad,” I continue. “You know how well that went.” Nathia’s lips are so thin they’re in danger of disappearing.
“I mean,” she says, “why doesn’t this elusive business partner just start showing up for meetings! Instead of leaving it all to Jarad, or hiring a… stooge!”
“Because they’re married to your boss.” I watch as Nathia’s mind ticks over.
“Rachel!?” she says eventually.
“Rachel is in business with Jarad?”
“And Michael doesn’t know about this?”
“Of course not,” I say. “Hence Stephan LeBlanc.” Nathia shakes her head in bewilderment.
“Is she having an affair with Jarad?” she asks.
“No. She’s his cousin – distant cousin. Another thing Michael doesn’t know.”
“But why all the secrecy?”
“Well, you know; sometimes people have very personal reasons for keeping things private, and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they stay that way.” And Nathia knows exactly what I’m talking about.
“I take it then that Rachel is aware of our… ‘arrangement’?” I take a breath. I knew this was going to come up.
“I’m afraid she does.”
“I see,” says Nathia, the temperature in the room dropping to just above freezing. “This is a breach of our contract, William,” she says, using my real name for only the second time in several years.
“I’m aware of that.” We stare at each other for what seems like decades, and I genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next. Part of me expects a crack team of lawyers to sweep in through the window and carry me off in chains. A more realistic part expects Nathia to command me to leave London and never return. But most of me is praying that Rachel was right about Nathia.
“So why are you here?” she asks.
“I need your help,” I say. “We – Jarad, Rachel and I – need your help.”
She says nothing, instead she walks round to her side of her desk and presses a button on her phone. Caroline answers.
“Edwin and I are taking an early lunch, Caroline, can you rearrange my appointments for this afternoon?” And before Caroline has a chance to reply, Nathia hangs up. She turns to me. “Let’s go,” she says.
* * * * *
“Let me see if I’ve understood this correctly,” says Nathia, after she’s checked and double checked that everyone in our immediate vicinity is either busy eating, talking, or too inebriated to pay us any meaningful attention. “You’ve been hired to play the part of Stephan LeBlanc, to negotiate a restaurant merger with two of my clients, so that one of the real owners, Rachel Richmond – my boss’s wife – can continue to remain anonymous and keep her business dealings secret!?”
“Close enough,” I say. Nathia takes another cursory glance around the pub, presumably to see if there is anyone who might recognise us. It seems highly unlikely. We spent twenty minutes in a cab getting as far away from her office as possible.
“But now the challenge is how you meet Michael, as Stephan LeBlanc, when he already knows you as Edwin Clarkson, my supposed ex-boyfriend, without him discovering that in reality you’re neither of those people. Not to mention that his wife is in business with a man that he can’t stand, and that you’ve been helping me to conceal the fact that I’m one of those ‘ghastly fucking lesbian people’? Is that everything? Or did I miss something crucial?”
“You’re not ghastly,” I say. “A bit prickly sometimes, maybe…” Nathia’s face hardens.
“Michael Richmond is not a man to cross, William,” she says, becoming almost threatening. “He’s a man with fixed ideas about how the world should work, and he has the power and influence to ensure that it operates his way.” I should probably be scared. Instead I’m irritated.
“Yes, and I thought you were sick of all that? I thought you’d decided you weren’t going to go along with Michael’s prehistoric ideas any longer? That’s why you fired me, wasn’t it? So you could ‘come out’ and be yourself?”
“And I will, William,” replies Nathia. “In my own time! But the last thing I need is you interfering and outing me before I’m ready!”
“I’m not interfering,” I protest. “Or at least I didn’t mean to. It just got out of hand. And right now I want it all to go away!” I say. “And I don’t see how that can happen without your help.”
“What exactly do you expect me to do?” asks Nathia.
“Persuade Michael that he doesn’t need to meet Stephan! That would seem to be the most obvious thing.”
“You’ve got no idea, have you,” says Nathia, cocking her head as if I am some strange creature inside a cage.
“The only reason this merger is still on the table is because Michael got me to check the figures that were given to Abdul and his brother. And guess what: they’re impressive. Whoever put them together is clearly a shrewd business person. Which begs the question, why would someone with that level of business acumen want to stay in the shadows? Why would that same someone leave important business meetings in the hands of inept colleagues? Perhaps everything isn’t quite what it seems? In short, William – Michael smells a rat!” This is all news to me. I put my elbows on the table between us, drop my head into my hands, and let out a muffled cry of frustration.
“It seems to me your only possible course of action,” continues Nathia, “is to persuade Rachel and Jarad to forget the merger, and walk away.” I look at her through my fingers. “Though to be honest,” says Nathia, more to herself than to me, “that probably isn’t an option either. Michael is unlikely to drop the matter. He really wants to meet this Stephan LeBlanc. And once he gets a bee in his bonnet…”
I think of Rachel, how Michael ended up buying a building just to get her to marry him. Nathia is right; Michael will pursue Stephan to the end of the world and back.
Unless he can’t.
“What if,” I say, an idea forming in my mind, “we killed off Stephan? Fake his death somehow?”
“No, listen – that could work! We place an ad in the obituaries column of The Financial Times. If Michael thinks Stephan is dead all he’ll be left with is paperwork, and the merger will go ahead.” It was genius. “The FT does have an obituary column, doesn’t it? Nathia?”
“Quiet,” says Nathia. “I’m thinking.” I sit back in my chair and stare at the bubbles in the pint before me. I’m not in a drinking mood. “Jarad said his ‘business partner’ was busy,” said Nathia slowly. “But busy doing what?”
“Being Michael’s wife!” I say, picking up my beer as a fresh bout of hopelessness sweeps through me. Maybe I am in a drinking mood after all.
“Maybe not,” says Nathia, leaning forward and becoming more animated than I’ve seen her in a long while. “What if we turned the tables somewhat; what if a meeting between the two of them is arranged, but Michael is forced to miss it, due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ – especially if those circumstances are of a personal nature! He might just be more sympathetic to Monsieur LeBlanc’s previous absence.” I raise an eyebrow.
“What are you suggesting we do?” I ask. “Phone Michael at the last minute and tell him his aunt’s in hospital? Does he even have an aunt? And would he run to her bedside even if he did?” Nathia sits back in her chair. Gone is her enthusiasm.
“You’re right,” she says, picking up her orange juice. “It’s a stupid idea; Michael doesn’t care about anything other than work. The only personal life he has is Rachel and he doesn’t seem to give two hoots about her.” She sips her drink and then returns it to the table. “So basically you’re screwed. And so am I. Terrific. Well done, William. Are you even listening to me?!”
“Hang on,” I say, my head suddenly awash with thoughts of Rachel – maybe, just maybe, there is a moment waiting to be seized. “I might just have an idea.”
* * * * *
“You want me to do what?” says Rachel.
It’s taken me ten minutes to outline my plan and now all eyes are on Rachel as the four of us – Jarad, Zlata, Rachel and myself – congregate at the back of Jarad’s kitchen.
“I know,” I say, chewing nervously on the side of my thumb, “it’s a lot to ask. But it’s the only thing I could think of. We need something that Michael values more than anything else, more than his obsession with Stephan LeBlanc at least, and…”
“It is brilliant!” declares Zlata.
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I say. “In fact I think the whole thing is completely loony. Not to mention unethical. And possibly illegal.”
“It is like banking heights!” continues Zlata.
“You mean a bank heist,” I say.
“I know what I mean.”
“Look, Rachel,” I continue, “it’s just acting. You don’t have to mean it. It just has to seem like you mean it. At the time. Afterwards you can tell Michael… well, you can tell him that…”
“It’s okay, Will,” says Rachel, getting out of her seat and smoothing down her skirt. “I’ll do it.” The rest of us exchange glances.
“Really?” I ask. Rachel nods.
“Yes,” she says.
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