The lift was crowded, and Bertrand felt sorry for the tramp squeezing his way from passenger to passenger with his dirty hat. The fellow looked more deserving than some he could name. But it was money; Bertrand looked away, hoping the tramp wouldn’t get to him. Then the lift stopped with a, ding!, everyone else got out, and the tramp confronted him squarely. “Any change, gov’nor?”
Bertrand dug into his pocket and handed over a pound coin with as good grace as he could muster. And as he stepped out into the twelfth floor lobby of Brascobank, heading for Operations, he heard a wheezed, “Thank you”.
There were no more thank-yous that morning. None from the Chief Executive’s hustlers shaking their collection boxes (one pound each), nor from Sandra with her biscuits at reception (fifty pee), nor from Bill the security guard with his sandwiches (two pounds each). Bernard didn’t fancy the sandwiches, and he dropped one into the hat of Big John, who sat in the corridor leading to Operations, huge limbs tucked up under his chin, and at least gave a grateful nod.
Bertrand tried to give the other sandwich to his boss Irene in exchange for one of her cakes (‘Freshly-baked – Family to support!’), but it was returned with a firm smile, and he had to dig into his pocket (another pound – and the cake was gooey!). The sandwich was no more use with Cindy when she accosted him, scantily-clad, in the corridor. And Bertrand didn’t even try it with Sam and Chaz from Accounts – who, like Scylla and Charybdis, threatened passers-by from either side of the narrow aisle.
“Come on guys, I’ve got deals to process,” Bertrand appealed.
It was no use. “We’re here to help,” Sam said, manoeuvring between Bertrand and his cubicle.
“We protect you,” said Chaz. “And we make sure your deals get booked,” he added with a wink.
There was nothing for it: Bertrand fished out another pound.
“Ta!” said Sam, closing his palm on the coin. “And one more.” He held out his other hand.
Bertrand grimaced, tried his pocket again, but found only a fifty pence piece. This time Sam closed his fist, so the coin bounced off his knuckles onto the floor.
“Not getting cheap, are we?” Chaz came up menacingly.
Exasperated, Bertrand pulled a fiver from his wallet and asked for change.
“That’ll do nicely,” Chaz said, snatching the banknote. “Pleasure to do business with you.” And he and his mate lumbered off down the aisle to shake down someone else.
Bertrand stood fuming as he looked after the departing pair. If he were five years younger…. But discretion – and the hope that he could now get on with his work – took the better part of valour: he stayed by his cubicle. Yet it hurt. Sixteen quid down just getting to his desk – and the whole day still ahead. It made working a marginal proposition, as his wife would say.
Bertrand switched on his PC, and as he sat down, Brasco’s motto, ‘Let’s do business!’, whirled across the screen. He felt something on the seat; he looked down, and it was the sandwich, rather squashed in its clingfilm wrap. He might as well give that to Big John too, along with Irene’s cake.
Then Irene came by and asked for sponsorship for her daughter’s school fees.
Bertrand groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to…” (how to put it to his own boss?) “…to give me something in return? Like a business thing?” Brasco was trying to encourage entrepreneurialism, but this was just extortion.
“If you want to make an issue of it…,” Irene said, fingering her jewellery.
Well! Bertrand, on the brink, considered doing just that. But he needed the job, and the whistle-blower programme was hardly secure (and you had to pay there too). No, he had to swallow it. Taking out his wallet, he asked the going rate.
“Whatever you like. It’s voluntary, and much appreciated,” Irene murmured, fixing him with a steady gaze.
Bertrand found a fiver, and to his relief that was enough. With a little sniff his boss took herself off, skirt swishing down the aisle.
Smarting under this latest blow, Bertrand didn’t even see Internal Audit. Only a discreet cough alerted him to yet another caller on his finances. He didn’t have to pretend when he said he was cleaned out, and so Internal Audit took himself off whistling, with a promise to be back the following day.
What a start to the morning! Bertrand struggled to get into his work. As lunchtime approached, his eye fell on the squashed sandwich and the cake which still lay sadly on his desk. And he had an idea.
Big John eyed Irene’s cake morosely; he took a bite and then, shrugging, another bite. He was sitting next to Bertrand on a bench in the local park. “I’m not sure I can do it,” he mumbled though the cake, flapping a hand at the sparrows which were quarrelling over the crumbs.
“Of course you can!” Bertrand patted the broad shoulders. “You don’t like them, do you? Think of Chaz and Sam,” (he had seen them step over Big John without giving him anything) “it’s a chance to get your own back.”
Big John did begin to look more resolute.
“That’s my man!” Bertrand encouraged him. “I’ll give you a fiver a day to protect me – and on top of that, you keep half of anything you make.” He didn’t have very high hopes, but anything was worth a try.
Bertrand’s wife Joan, when he saw her that evening, was in full agreement. “We’ve got to do something. I got stung at the school gate for a contribution to the teachers’ pension fund. And what are the teachers doing? Jason” (this was their son) “was learning to play Extortion with his friends this afternoon. They shouldn’t have to learn that by themselves.”
Her husband said that the education system left a lot to be desired.
The following morning Big John, looking even taller shaved and in a proper suit, was waiting at Brasco’s entrance. Bertrand was impressed – although he did feel a twinge when his new assistant bundled the tramp out of the lift. But he had no qualms when the CE’s henchmen got the same treatment, nor when they marched past an open-mouthed Sandra at reception, nor when Bill stepped aside for them in the corridor. There, however, stood Sam and Chaz, folded arms.
“Thought I paid you guys off yesterday,” Bertrand said.
“Today is another day,” Chaz leered, palm held out. “And extra for your assistant.” He glanced scornfully at Big John.
Whomp! Years of being spurned and stepped over obviously boiled up in Big John; he put his head down and charged. Sam, who caught the main impact, was carried fully two cubicles up the aisle, while Chaz clung gasping to the partition. Big John was gearing up for another charge when Bertrand held him back. So the giant consoled himself by picking Chaz up by the lapels and demanding, “a fiver for the gov’nor”.
Chaz coughed up, as did Sam after similar encouragement. The pair limped off, and Big John proudly presented the two five pound notes to his boss.
Cautious at this unexpected success, Bertrand considered the two notes. Was this really sustainable? On impulse he folded them, and slipped them into his assistant’s breast pocket. “That’s today’s pay,” he said, “and a bonus for you on top. Keep up the good work!” And the smile that beamed from Big John’s face then made it all worthwhile.
The only fly in the ointment, Bertrand reflected as they reached his cubicle, was his boss. What would Irene make of it?
The morning was quiet. Word had obviously spread, and anyone had only to see Big John patrolling the aisle to guess what was up. Perhaps the slowest to cotton on was Internal Audit who, arriving by chance when Big John was at one end of the aisle, actually reached Bertrand’s cubicle. A quick shake-down on the giant’s return produced the statutory fiver, and he had to promise a clean audit opinion into the bargain. No one came by to sell their cakes or sandwiches or sexual services, the drug dealers stayed away, and Bertrand got his work done in record time.
By the day’s end, he was beginning to think that it was almost too quiet, when he saw a white flag waving from the bend in the corridor. Big John went to investigate, and brought back a nervous Cindy, now formally dressed and tiny beside her captor. “Irene would like to talk to you, Bertrand,” she said, flashing an anxious smile at Big John. The giant inclined his head.
The following morning, Bertrand found himself seated on Irene’s sofa, drinking tea brought by Cindy, while Big John stood solidly beside him.
Irene was all warmth. “What marvellous entrepreneurial spirit, in the best traditions of Brasco!” She glanced admiringly at Big John, who folded his arms complacently and who, Bertrand was beginning to realise, did have a weak spot when it came to the ladies. “And, if you don’t mind my asking, how much have you made?”
Bertrand told her. In fact, apart from Chaz and Sam’s contributions and Internal Audit’s, there had been only one further receipt – a fiver from the Head of Institutional Sales who came through by mistake but got shaken down just the same. Bertrand wondered if Irene would want a share. She was, he saw, even more smartly dressed than the previous day – that chain was surely solid gold, and weren’t those diamonds?
Yet Irene’s focus was elsewhere. “What I want to ask is, what are your plans? Where do you go from here?”
Bernard shrugged. Wasn’t it enough to be able to work in peace?
“Oh, but you can’t stop!” Irene exclaimed. “You’re on to a winner, you can’t give up now. How are you going to feed him?” She glanced at Big John.
“And another thing,” she lowered her voice, “they won’t cooperate with you. Legal, HR, even Accounts – have you heard from them?”
Bertrand hadn’t. It had been too quiet.
Irene leant forward so that he could see that even her glasses had gold frames. “You’ve got a tiger by the tail, you can’t let go. The only thing is to ride it. And I can help.”
“You can?” Bertrand blinked. Help was the last thing he expected from his boss.
“Help you expand,” Irene explained. “It’s expand or die!”
This was too dramatic for Bertrand. He wanted time to think about it, but time, according to Irene, was the one thing he didn’t have. “I need to know whether you are with me or against me,” she said. “I need to know now.”
Bertrand heard Big John shift his feet. He knew he had no choice.
Irene’s first idea was a raid on Accounts. “Follow through while the enemy is in retreat,” she said. “Pursue and destroy!”
“Destroy?” Bertrand gulped. This was really taking him out of his comfort zone.
“Destroy,” Irene said firmly.
So destroy it was, although how much destroying Cindy would be able to do in her high heels was the question that came to Bertrand’s mind as he stumped along behind her and Big John on the way to Accounts.
In the event, Cindy proved her worth. She engaged Sam in conversation while Big John came up silently from behind and downed him with a lever-arch file. “Should have digitised your records, shouldn’t you?” Cindy said, prodding the inert figure with her toe.
Chaz, cowering in his office, was dragged out before his astonished staff. Big John hauled him off down the corridor and bundled him into the rubbish chute, where he was shortly followed by Sam. Bertrand’s assistant then glared at the rest of the department, but there were no more takers. So he went round collecting a fiver from each of them, which yielded a handy hundred-and-fifty quid (“I had no idea Accounts was so large,” Bertrand remarked to Cindy) – and then went round again for good measure. A search revealed considerably more stashed away in various cubicles. And that was before they ransacked Chaz’s office. Altogether, it was a real sackful of cash that Big John swung onto Chaz’s table. Cindy counted out three thousand pounds in notes and coins.
Bertrand split the haul four ways, taking his own share and Irene’s. Leaving Cindy in charge of Accounts, he and Big John strolled back to their boss.
Irene was pleased at the afternoon’s work, although she queried the seven hundred and fifty pounds that Bertrand produced as her share. But Bertrand was firm. The staff had done the work and deserved their reward. And there was still the ongoing flow of earnings from Accounts to come. Mollified, Irene let them off for the rest of the day.
Outside her office, Big John turned to his boss. “I like working with you,” he grinned.
After that excitement, the corridors of Brascobank settled into a certain routine. The Accounts staff, firmly under Cindy’s control, paid up their daily fiver without a murmur. The staff in the neighbouring departments on the twelfth floor paid daily tribute as well, on Bertrand’s insistence at a ‘friendship’ rate of one pound. He also insisted, against Big John’s protestations, that they engage an assistant – and Bill the security guard was found to be the ideal candidate (“He can make you sandwiches”). So each morning, the two large men did the rounds of their floor together.
Meanwhile, Cindy had been working hard. She introduced a booking fee (flat rate) for every entry into the accounting records, and a service fee (ad valorem) for every payment. There were objections from some departments, but when Big John and Bill went round to explain, the objections were somehow smoothed away – although Bertrand, whose office was next to the rubbish chute, realised it was not as easy as it looked, and made sure that the hardworking pair were properly rewarded. He himself was getting his share of the various tributes. There didn’t seem to be anything coming in from Cindy’s side, presumably Irene was looking after that, but he wasn’t concerned about the money, he was just glad to be able to work in peace.
And so it went on. Irene fidgeted, demanding this and that, but Bertrand managed to dissuade her from further adventures. That is, until Big John stopped outside his cubicle one day.
“I feel I should be doing something more,” his assistant mused, rubbing his chin with a gigantic fist. “Don’t feel I’m pulling my weight, like.”
“But you’re doing very well,” Bertrand protested. “You’re making good money, you’re Director of Security,” (at his insistence, Irene had leant on HR) “you’re keeping the peace. What more could you want?”
“Peace?” Big John raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Those buggers on the fifteenth floor,” (this was the senior management) “I don’t trust ’em.”
With a sinking heart, Bertrand realised he had a point. He thanked his assistant, and went straight to Irene.
“Absolutely!” Irene’s spectacles glinted. “Just ask yourself, if it were your company, would you let a couple of upstarts in Operations carve out an empire?”
Bertrand murmured something about entrepreneurial culture.
“Entrepreneurial my foot! That’s about us making money for them, not the other way around. Do you realise that Cindy’s Accounts team charged the Chief Executive’s Office ten thousand for a loan repayment yesterday?”
Bertrand hadn’t realised. “I didn’t even know Cindy–”
“Yes, well, anyway,” Irene hurried on. “What are we going to do about it? That’s the question.”
Bertrand could see where this was going. “I’m not sure we can do another raid,” he said nervously. They had some pretty big people up on the fifteenth floor, not to mention guns. He didn’t want his staff getting hurt. And could they even get in? “There’s heavy-duty kit up there. Steel grills, concrete bunkers, you name it.”
“I wasn’t thinking of a raid,” Irene said softly. She made a phone call. And a few moments later in walked the petite figure of Cindy.
Big John, when Bertrand explained his role to him, was ecstatic. “I knew it, I knew it!” he cried, almost crushing Bertrand in a delighted hug. “I knew you’d come up with something. Action at last!”
He was less pleased when told that he would have to contribute his earnings. But Irene was adamant. “Everything has to go into the pot,” she insisted, “we have to make a clean sweep.” And she herself threw in the ten thousand Cindy had got from the CE Office. Bertrand followed with his own more modest accumulation, whereupon Big John heaved a sigh and threw in his (“Easy come, easy go”). Bill, who had only just started making real money, was the most upset of all. “I’ve got commitments,” he confided through tears. Bertrand promised to make him whole again if they came through the venture in one piece.
The essence of Irene’s plan was unconditional surrender. “We can’t beat them, so we’ll join them,” she explained to their core group. “We give them everything we’ve taken, as if it had all been done on their behalf.”
Wondering if the senior management would fall for it, Bertrand helped with the preparations.
When all had been done, they filed into the fifteenth floor lobby, heads down, looking contrite. There was a sticky moment when Big John wheeled in the trolley with its sack of money: the Chief Financial Officer almost pushed him aside in his haste to get at the loot. But Big John kept his cool, delivering the sack safely to the strong room under the guardianship of the CE’s Personal Assistant Macy. After a dressing-down by the CE in front of the assembled cronies and toughs of the C-suite, Irene and her colleagues were allowed to file out and return to the relative safety of the twelfth floor.
That evening, Bertrand led Big John and a puzzled Bill via the fire escape back up to the fifteenth floor. There they were greeted by a determined-looking Cindy – who rose several notches in Bertrand’s estimation. “What the…?” Bill exclaimed, but was hushed by his colleagues with the promise of an explanation later. Cindy led them through the security doors, past the discarded money sack (in which she had hidden) and the trussed and gagged Macy, into the CE’s antechamber.
“That you, Macy?” the CE called through the door.
“I’m just bringing in the papers,” Cindy squeaked, in a passable imitation of Macy’s voice.
Then they rushed him.
With Bill stationed at the outer door, Big John had a brief interview with the CE – as a result of which the latter gave up the strong room keys and expressed no further interest in running the company. That just left the CFO, Bertrand recalled anxiously.
“Been done!” said Bill, dusting down his jacket as he entered the room, and earning an appreciative clap on the back from Big John. And when they went to look, it had.
They called Irene. But not before they had opened the strong room door and separated the money there into four piles – all the while broadcasting the spectacle by video streamed to the enterprise intranet. By the time Irene arrived, a crowd of staff were gawping at the cash, and more were arriving by the minute.
“…This pile is for the Rescue Team,” Bertrand was announcing to the crowd, “and this one for the incoming CE.”
There were mutterings from the audience. Someone shouted, “Is that fair?”
“…And this pile is for the staff,” Bertrand continued. The mutterings turned to a roar, and the staff surged forward, to be held back by Big John.
“What about the last pile?” someone else called.
“That is for the staff pension fund,” said Bertrand.
The staff thundered their applause.
Irene arrived just in time to receive her share of the applause – and of course her pile as incoming CE. When she realised what had been done with the rest of the money, she was furious. But even she was mollified when she counted her share. The former CE had been in post a long time, and had gouged such an enormous sum from the company and its staff and suppliers that even a quarter of it was a fortune. And when they scoured the rest of the C-suite, they found enough tucked away there to make a fifth pile. This Irene did keep to herself, but when the year end came she was a little more generous with the bonus pool (of which she received a large share) than she otherwise would have been.
Bertrand retired from Brasco, as did Big John (Bill becoming Director of Security), and the two men became good friends. They were chatting over a beer at the barbecue held in honour of Jason’s ninth birthday. Big John watched benevolently as the boys rushed to and fro, beating one another up and shouting at the girls. Then Jason himself ran up, pointed a toy gun at Big John, and demanded five pounds. The giant threw his hands up in mock alarm, then reached for his wallet.
“Brought him up well!” he chuckled to Bertrand.
Joan, coming by just in time to witness the transaction, gave a little clap. “Just like his father!”
But Bertrand wasn’t listening. He had been thinking about it all and now, suddenly, he had it. He turned to Big John. “You know what the secret of success is?”
Big John had a pretty good idea, but he wanted his friend to say it. “Go on.”
“It’s leaving something on the table,” Bertrand said. And at his insistence, Jason reluctantly gave the fiver back to Big John.