Analysts and other nobodies don’t get invited to level 36 meetings. Deacon Holdings doesn’t roll like that.
Kirsten’s message proved that well known fact to be wrong. I’m trying to be cool about my new status. My work pod buddy Rory is on a different mission.
‘Has Kirsten told you what’s going on yet?’
‘Nope, she just said she wanted me there.’
‘Well it’s got to be a first. Kind of a waste of time though. An hour of your life you’ll never get back.’ He pauses for effect. ‘It’s not like Kirsten will get you to do anything, right? Oh, unless she wants you to take her notes,’ he says, knowing full well that’s a job for an intern.
At 9.45 am on Monday he takes his last shot.
‘Hope someone did a final spell check on your work.’
I stand and turn. He’s smirking. It makes me mad. Before I can stop myself I’m smiling . . . oh so sweetly. Anyone with an ounce of brains would retreat before that smile. Rory sits back in his chair, confident he already has the victory. Unaware that he’s awoken something terrible; something that shames and terrifies me.
‘I don’t know if the truth will set you free, Rory Craven, but you should at least be honest with yourself. I’m only here because you palmed the Hugin project onto me when you thought you had a better offer.’ I picture him crushed by the weight of his malice. It takes me a moment to realise he actually looks abnormally pale. Grey even. Beads of sweat are forming on his brow. I let the image go and he starts panting, his normal colour returning quickly.
This is old ground for me. This gift. This curse. Familiar, but not understood. I can’t consciously conjure or control it. I know because I’ve tried. It’s not even a single thing. Sometimes it’s my thoughts that play out in the real world. Sometimes it’s a prediction or even a revelation. Intense emotions seem to trigger it. I try suppressing it as best I can.
Two years ago when I first arrived at Deacon’s San Francisco head office, a raw graduate, I didn’t think self-control would be a problem. Working my way up through the ranks of a long-established tech company, where gender equity is still a quaint idea, offers plenty to test my resolve.
I recently upped the ante, joining an internal consultancy group tasked with bringing new ideas to market. Swimming at the deep end of the play pool is my kind of dangerous. What we deliver, or fail to, drives Deacon’s share price. Losing control in front of Rory and risking exposure is not part of my game plan. I’ve just blown two years of good behaviour.
‘Easier isn’t better, Rory. Next time do the hard work yourself. Squaring the circle is therapeutic.’ It might make me feel better to tear into him, but I’m wasting my breath. He doesn’t nod or do anything much. I imagine he’s too busy thinking about whether he should see his doctor and undergo a battery of tests or whether he should brush it off. My bet is denial.
Regardless, I’m going to see how the great and powerful operate, while he returns to his pencil tapping.
I step off the elevator at level 36 and feel the gravity. My floor says steady efficiency, with its rows of functional desks and tame colours. This room is trying hard to reach for glory. A modern rendering of the Hall of Mirrors. Glittering and glacial. Taking up one whole side of the building with a soaring ceiling and uncompromising voids. At the real estate prices around here, a commitment to this much unoccupied space is a statement.
I walk over parquet towards a gilt Louis XIV table that serves as a reception desk. The woman sitting there is straight out of Vogue. Long and angular. She must get up an hour earlier than the rest of us to do her hair and make-up. Despite all my agonising about what to wear, I now feel shabby. Zara is fine, it just doesn’t compare to Chanel.
‘Can I help you?’ She finishes with a saccharine smile. The underlying frost says everything. I guess I don’t look like level 36 material.
‘Alex Flett, staff. Here for the Hugin presentation.’ I try to project confidence, but my voice betrays me. She purses her lips as she scrolls through a list of names. I’m not going anywhere without her permission.
‘Down the corridor, end door. Ms Collins is already there,’ she says. Before I’ve even left, she’s lost interest.
In the conference room Kirsten is overseeing the final preparations. My work is up on the screen being flicked through. She waves me in, distracted. Her focus is on the tech assistant doing the set up.
Kirsten is smart, efficient, able to navigate the internal politics with style and one of the reasons I’ve stayed instead of heading back east. I desperately want to learn from her.
‘Here, next to me.’ Kirsten points to a chair at the table, third from the front.
‘Here?’ I was expecting to sit at the back, an observer.
‘You know this material better than anyone Alex. Having good heads around the table never hurts.’ Kirsten radiates certainty.
There are footsteps in the corridor. Then the door opens and the room fills with a herd of suited men. I stand, looking towards Kirsten for a hint to my next move. She shakes hands, welcoming the half a dozen or so senior execs who have entered. Then she beckons me.
Oh my god. I’m standing before Jeff Rutledge. The Boss. I’ve only ever seen him on those serious late night current affairs shows about the economy and business.
I manage not to disgrace myself as we say hello, then Kirsten and Jeff fall into intense discussion about meeting tactics. I feel superfluous. I’m about to move away when Kirsten glances at me. She wants me to stay put and hear the plan.
There’s a knock on the door. All heads turn. Another Vogue escapee enters and looks over to Jeff.
‘Mr. Sigurdsson is here, sir.’
Jeff nods, ‘Show him in Jane.’
Most of those who entered with Jeff have made their way to the bottom end of the table. One of them walks up to take the chair next to mine. He puts out his hand. I do the same.
Tony De Luca introduces himself. I know from the company newsletter that he’s the CFO. I’ve never met him face to face. This is all seriously several rungs above my pay grade.
Jane reappears, leading in a new herd of suits. Maybe a more exacting collective noun is required? They’re no herd. More like a commando.
The visitors are about to take their seats when the person being shepherded by Jane to the front of the table somehow breaks free, finding his own place opposite me. It’s a deft manoeuvre that leaves me wondering what’s going on. All five, two women and three men, appear relaxed. The difference is four of them are looking towards the man who should have been sitting across from Jeff. No prizes for guessing who the head of Hugin, Finn Sigurdsson is then.
It’s difficult not to notice him; a thirty-something with closely cropped black hair, sharp nose and cheekbones, strong eyebrows, blue eyes, and a faint trace of stubble. Arresting, rather than comfortably attractive.
Not deterred by the unconventional start, Jeff opens the meeting with all the standard comments, then turns to Kirsten inviting her to introduce our team. I glance across at Finn Sigurdsson and instead of being able to study him further; he’s doing the studying. Openly. I look away. Feeling awkward.
While I’ve been distracted, Jeff has started the pitch. The idea is to put together Hugin’s patents for highly developmental nano tech 3D printing processes with an untested proton replacement process that Deacon’s Silicon Valley R&D lab have been messing around with. In theory we could combine common elements and turn them into almost any object. Think ‘replicator technology’ on science fiction star ships. It’s not that far removed.
Finn Sigurdsson’s chair is pushed away from the table. He’s leaning back, one leg crossed over the other, his hands halfway between his face and lap, with fingertips touching. He mostly stares at his hands, probably listening, although it’s hard to be sure. Every now and then he surveys the room. Each time he does, his eyes come back to rest on me.
Jeff is only focused on him. Speaking to the one person in the room who appears least interested in what he has to say. Jeff keeps trying to catch Sigurdsson’s roving eyes and the effort is taking a toll. He starts clenching his fists like he wants to bang the table to draw attention back to himself. It’s tactical on Sigurdsson’s part, winding up the opposition. Like something my dad would do.
While Sigurdsson has the reputation for being a strategic genius, to achieve what he has, he’d also have to be as hard as they come. He wears an attitude that is several parsecs beyond ‘fuck with me at your own peril’. Like if it suited his purpose to throw you under a bus, he would without hesitation.
That thought prompts another less welcome vision of Finn Sigurdsson. Surrounded by bodies and covered in blood. I shrug it off as laughable. Not the literal truth, perhaps allegorical. But it starts me wondering whether he has some kind of military background.
It might explain his extensive Department of Defence contracts too. I sit there giving over far too much brain space to the question of how high he rates on my personal ‘hostile force’ index. Eventually, I try to refocus on the meeting, telling myself to settle down. It’s probably only the rekindling of thoughts about my dad that have worked me up, or maybe I’m absorbing Jeff’s anxiety.
Finally the presentation concludes. Kirsten and Tony have caught Jeff’s mood. Both have creases on their brows.
‘Finn, what do you think? Ask questions,’ Jeff’s trying to be conversational, but his tone makes it sound like a demand.
Finn Sigurdsson raises his head and one eyebrow. The rest of his face remains deathly still. Then he signals almost imperceptibly to his team, who launch into several probing lines of inquiry about the financial, engineering and scientific aspects of the proposal.
The blond woman sitting next to Sigurdsson, Anna, pushes Tony pretty hard over the numbers. Tony starts rubbing his palms on his lap. It’s only the start of a barrage of questions, but Kirsten and Tony cover it all without any help from me.
‘Ms Flett, do you think I should invest?’
It comes out of nowhere. I’m lost for words. Then my nightmare looms. The one where I commit career suicide by babbling incoherently. I know I’m blushing. I wish I could stop that.
‘Mr Sigurdsson, I’ve worked on this proposal for some time and can see the potential to completely change manufacturing as we know it. The applications, particularly in sectors like aerospace, electronics and automotive, are pretty radical. No doubt you’ll make your own assessment, but yes I think you should invest.’
I was taken aback to hear Kirsten describe me in her introduction as one of Deacon’s leaders in operations research. Sure it’s my engineering specialty and sure I’m good at solving complex problems, but leader is a bit of a stretch. I’m just pleased that I could get out three whole sentences without stumbling.
There’s no time for reflection. Finn Sigurdsson smiles, but he has me fixed in his sights.
‘I’d be happy for you to call me Finn, Ms Flett.’ It feels like he’s making this personal. I’d accuse him of flirting across the board table, but while he might be lots of things, sleazy isn’t one of them. I’m listening pretty carefully for that bus though.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
Alex Flett, twenty-four, encounters tech billionaire Finn Sigurdsson at a high-powered business meeting. He’s hiding a dangerous secret that people would kill for. The gift of immortality. Alex has a secret too. Disturbing unnatural powers, which she’s struggling to control and starting to wonder whether they are real or imagined. Unaware they share a nemesis who is planning to weaponise Alex to bring Finn down; it’s uncertain whether they will become allies or foes. The story weaves together Norse mythology and Vikings from the thirteenth century Orkney-inga Saga into a modern tale of sex, love, loyalty and vengeance.
Susan George lives in Melbourne and has a passion for ideas, history and the natural world. She advises on public policy and spends much of her time writing and editing. For better or worse she knows quite a bit about the inner workings of government.
To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org