Prologue: Craven Conflict

Thursday 14th March

“I’m really sorry, Wayne. I think I’m going to have to let you go.”
It was never going to be easy for Karen Rutherford to break the news to one of her staff members that he might be on the verge of losing his job. She tried to keep eye contact with the calm figure sitting opposite, as he looked back across the office with a barely discernible hint of surprise, and it was plain that her attempt was doomed to failure. He showed no sign of replying, and an uneasy silence descended.
Karen glanced out of the office window where her recruitment agency Rutherford Professional & Legal Recruitment occupied a small suite of rooms on a second floor in Temple Street, and caught a glimpse of the sign above the entrance to The Trocadero, a historic city centre pub well known to many a thirsty worker in the local commercial neighbourhood. It was just after midday, and she noticed a trickle of eager lunchtime drinkers already heading inside. Dragging her thoughts back to the nettle that she had finally steeled herself to grasp that morning, she found her voice again and broke the silence.
“You know how badly the legal division’s doing right now. There’s only enough work for one of us. Even in a small operation like this.”
There was little doubt in Karen’s mind. She could no longer delay forcing the issue that she had already avoided confronting for far too long. She needed to tell her right hand man Wayne Avery that she might have to make him redundant. And in order to avoid the risk of a claim for unfair dismissal, she was under a duty to give him every reasonable chance to fight his corner before she could progress to a final decision.
As a recruitment consultant specialising in the legal profession, running a niche agency of her own, Karen had been only too aware of how three harsh years’ worth of economic downturn had taken its toll. Her early life as a sole trader, after her distaste for office politics had led her to walk away from the career ladder at a major practice, had brought good fortune and prosperity. But those days were long gone. The sector was greatly oversupplied. There were too many lawyers chasing too few vacancies. The fact that many local law firms had chosen to batten down the hatches, in the hope of riding out the recession by consolidating rather than expanding, only made matters worse.
Karen herself needed no reminder that the boom times, when the solicitors’ profession had recklessly assumed an infinite demand for its services and had encouraged almost unfettered entry from the aspiring students at the proliferating law colleges, were unlikely to make an early reappearance. Rutherford Professional and Legal Recruitment (Birmingham) Limited, or Ripple Birmingham as she had branded the company from the outset, had suffered ever increasing collateral damage while the legal profession paused for breath.
She looked across the desk once more, anxious for Avery to respond before the silence became too uncomfortable. He held her glance, his expression still deliberately neutral rather than hostile, and made as if to flick a speck of imaginary dust from his left lapel, his fingers slipping underneath the folded fabric in the process. The gesture was not lost on Karen.
“Oh, come on, Wayne. I wasn’t born yesterday. Put it on the table.”
For his part, Avery had once been an ideal solution to Karen’s aim of striking a balance between her working life and the lure of her outside interests. He had chosen to turn his back on a university degree course altogether when he narrowly failed to gain a place at Cambridge, eagerly embracing the world of recruitment instead. Having rapidly worked his way through the ranks of a leading agency with a nationwide presence, he soon decided that he would rather not wait there indefinitely and risk never gaining the recognition that he felt he deserved. Working for himself, when he judged the time to be right, could not come soon enough. A smaller practice was the way forward.
Four years earlier, Karen had been pursuing political ambitions. It was no easy task to find a means of keeping her business on the right track while pursuing the chance of a Parliamentary career. But she had been greatly impressed by the ambitious young man who seemed so readily to fit the profile of a trustworthy colleague who might one day become her equal partner in the firm, despite only being twenty five years old. Avery’s eagerness to proclaim ‘everything I touch turns to sold’, and his persistence with the painful cliché even after its coincidental ridicule via reality TV, had once been an endearing quirk. His fee earning skills soon won him a pay rise, director status, and a promise of an equity stake in the company if he continued to impress.
But the passage of time had eventually led Karen to abandon all ideas of ever becoming an approved Conservative candidate. Her active involvement in politics, after leaving the party over an issue of principle and then being welcomed back a year later following a root and branch upheaval in her local association, had finally come to nothing. It all seemed so futile to her once she had concluded that she held little affinity for what she saw as the needlessly wasted years of Coalition government.
Having decided to commit herself fully to the world of recruitment again, and to free herself from time consuming distractions as far as possible, Karen had not taken long to notice that her efforts to focus on rebuilding a full personal caseload had coincided with a distinct decline on Avery’s part. The downturn in legal sector recruitment activity was insult to injury, but no excuse. It was then only a matter of time, as Avery’s apparent complacency began to grate on her all the more, before she reached her almost inevitable conclusion. There was never going to be enough law firm recruitment work at Ripple for two headhunters. She would need to have the courage of her convictions, and initiate a discussion that was virtually certain to lead to the two of them parting company.
“Fair cop.”
With a grin flickering across his face, Avery reached into his breast pocket, took out the miniature tape recorder, and deliberately placed it in the middle of the desk between him and Karen.
In Avery’s early days at Ripple, when he had begun the process of building his workload up to full capacity, Karen soon came to hear that an increasing number of client firms and candidates were remarking upon her new assistant’s astonishing feats of memory. Despite rarely taking notes in meetings, and concentrating instead on an intensely focused blend of questions and advice, his subsequent written work and correspondence following the meetings seemed to show an incredible eye for detail. Karen would never have found herself any the wiser, had it not been for Avery’s boasting to Dawn Vallance, Karen’s PA, about how he managed to create such an impression.
“Let me just make one thing clear first, Wayne.” Karen was determined not to allow herself to feel unnerved, despite the knowledge that every word she said was now being captured for posterity. “I haven’t made a final decision about this yet. It’s my duty to explain what’s behind it all, and to make sure I’ve consulted you properly. If there’s anything you can think of that might point me in a different direction, this is your chance to tell me about it. I really don’t want to lose you, but this isn’t a perfect world, and I can’t pretend that the situation out there isn’t getting desperate.”
“So you think that taking my candidates and my clients off me is a magic bullet?”
There was a touch of blatant insolence in Avery’s response. Karen made a supreme effort to stay calm.
“They’re not yours, Wayne, they’re mine. I own the firm, not you. Anyway, surely you can see that you’ve hardly covered your salary and your overheads ever since last summer?”
Avery shrugged. “What about Neeta?”
“She’s still well ahead, just as she always has been.”
In marked contrast with the firm’s legal division, the management accountancy area of the practice had been notably resilient despite the recession, thanks to the diligent efforts of Neeta Patel. Never one to show off, her fee earning had reflected her understated drive to succeed in her own way. Karen was well aware that Avery had little in common with his quiet and unassuming colleague. And it was entirely within character for him to draw her into the debate despite the lack of justification for doing so.
But after another few moments of awkward silence, Avery’s next comment was far from what Karen might have expected.
“Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe there isn’t enough legal work on the books to keep Ripple afloat.”
Ignoring what she took to be a contrived pun, Karen passed over the typed summary of the firm’s position and prospects that she had prepared earlier. She had included enough information to make it plain that making Avery redundant might be a fair and reasonable option, in the face of Ripple’s difficulties, but she had also been careful not to disclose anything of a sensitive financial nature. She was never going to overlook the fact that Avery was only an employee.
“Can I suggest you have a good look at this. If you haven’t got anything in the diary, I’d be happy for you to take the afternoon off to think about everything. Tomorrow as well if you like. Let’s pick up on everything on Monday morning at 10.00, shall we?”
“OK then, if you say so. I’ve got no meetings planned, and I’m only waiting on….. no, I’m not really waiting on anything. It doesn’t seem like a great deal of consultation, though.”
Karen bit back an exasperated response as her eye fell on the tape recorder once more, and she thought quickly for a more diplomatic way to phrase what she had intended to say.
“Well, I can’t exactly sack myself, as you know. As I’ve explained, Neeta’s safe, and there’s good reasons for me to make that clear. I’d love to move somewhere less expensive, but there’s another two years left to run on the office lease. And I don’t imagine for one minute you’d want to go part time and drop your salary. If all these law firms would start taking more people on, we wouldn’t be in a situation like this.”
Wayne nodded, picked up the tape recorder and pushed his chair back.
“OK, Monday it is. I’ll go off and gather my thoughts. For the record, you can take it as read that I’m not very happy.” Slowly and deliberately, he switched the recorder off and put it back in his pocket. Without a further word, he stood up, walked out of Karen’s office and retreated down the corridor to his own. Karen braced herself for the sound of a door slamming, but it closed quietly.
Glancing across her desk as the tension of the meeting dispersed, Karen noticed the unopened copy of the latest edition of “HR Now” and a feature headline beneath the plastic wrapping that read “Work-Life Balance: New Perspectives”. She gave the magazine a bitter scowl. It was a cruel time for any self employed small business owner, particularly one involved in a ruthlessly competitive industry and a struggling sector, to be reminded that work was only supposed to be a means to an end.
But as her thoughts turned to what lay beyond the workplace in the outside world, having had little reason to celebrate her thirty-fifth birthday a few weeks earlier, she could only shake her head in disbelief at where she found herself. Eighteen months earlier, not long after she had finally abandoned any hope of a career in Conservative politics, she had lost her widowed mother to a sudden and aggressive form of cancer. The ritual formula ‘passed away peacefully after a short illness’ did her little justice.
Having picked herself up and thought long and hard about what might give her the chance of enhancing her overall quality of life, Karen had taken the paradoxical decision to uproot herself from her home in the East Worcestershire countryside and move to an executive flat on an up and coming development in Moseley, not far from central Birmingham, in the hope that she might feel more comfortable in an urban setting after all. And, indeed, that she might improve her chances of finding the committed personal relationship that had eluded her for so long.
As Karen tried her best to banish the unwelcome memory of the closest she had come to achieving this in the previous year – a short lived affair with a married man who had betrayed her by meekly returning to his wife after less than a month, his blunt final text message standing in symbolic contrast to his earlier effusive promises – the phone rang. Two messages from Dawn brought her quickly back to reality. Gemma Gabriel, a prospective new candidate who had seemed full of enthusiasm to launch her quest for a commercial litigation role that would match her seven years of experience, had cancelled an initial interview that had been Karen’s sole diary commitment for the next day. And the head of Human Resources at Howe & Palmer had called to confirm that they did not wish to arrange a second interview for a candidate who had been quietly confident when he had called Karen to tell her how his first interview had gone. No, she thought, it never rains but it pours.
* * * * *
“Just take a seat back in reception for a few minutes, if you would. We need to have a brief chat in private.”
The interview was over. Paul Craven heard the meeting room door close behind him, and selected a convenient chair to relax in while he waited for the two men who had questioned him in detail over the previous hour to come to a conclusion. He thought quietly to himself that he had finally managed to give the interview performance of his life.
It had been bad enough for Craven to be forced to pick up the pieces, in his early thirties, after being made redundant. His law firm employer had fallen on hard times and had decided to close his department in the process of slimming itself down to make itself more attractive for a takeover. There had been too many firms in the already declining Stoke on Trent area competing for too little work, the acclaimed Potteries all but a footnote in industrial history. A steady loss of clients as a result of business slowdown and insolvency had hit some firms harder than others. The niche firm where Craven had worked as a legal executive, dealing with the disputed claims that emerged from commercial debt collection work, had been ruthlessly targeted by rivals offering cut throat fee discounts that had proved too tempting for its clients to refuse.
What had made matters so much worse for Craven, as he saw his employer abandon its litigation practice altogether ahead of throwing in its lot with a larger firm, was that job interviews were completely unknown territory. Indeed he had never worked anywhere else in his life. Having left school at the first possible opportunity, with a respectable set of exam results but little desire to continue academic studies in a setting that he found oppressive, he had gratefully taken up the office junior’s role that his solicitor uncle had arranged for him in a law firm not far from home.
Craven’s keen eye for detail, alongside his dedication to mundane tasks that his colleagues spurned, was soon recognised. An impressive spell as an accounts clerk led in due course to the firm deciding to sponsor him through evening and home study law classes. He gained admission to the Institute of Legal Executives without seeing the need to boast unduly about his achievement, and quickly settled into his new fee earning role in charge of contested debt collection, working on his own. At one stage there had even been talk within the firm of encouraging him to undertake further professional studies and aim to qualify as a solicitor, despite his lack of a degree. However, he saw little appeal in either the sabbatical from work or the more intensive round of wider learning that this would have involved. The job he did was sufficient for his needs, and he held no greater ambitions.
But the good days were long gone as the firm spiralled into decline and lost its independence. One of its most reliable and dedicated employees suffered the ultimate form of collateral damage, as its door closed on him for the last time. With a bare minimum severance payment in his pocket, and with no prospect of persuading the predator firm to take him on alongside most of his old colleagues, Craven had been left way outside his personal comfort zone when faced with the need to seek a new job, for the first time in his adult life. Over and above his very bald CV, he discovered the cold reality of his home town of Stafford having even fewer law firm opportunities than the Potteries region from which he had just been ousted. Widening his search, he had contacted a sympathetic recruitment consultant in Birmingham whom he had chanced upon after a great deal of online trial and error. A couple of days later, he caught a train for an initial get together in the New Street station concourse, accepting the consultant’s explanation that this was more likely to put him at his ease than a formal meeting in the office.
Four law firm interviews later, all of them to no avail and with a consistent theme in the interviewer feedback of ‘nice enough chap, but nothing special about him’, Craven’s perceptive headhunter had stepped in. Craven had eagerly accepted the suggestion of a couple of hours’ intensive coaching on how to set about impressing a prospective employer face to face. The catchphrase ‘sometimes you’ve got to fake it to make it’ soon became firmly fixed in Craven’s mind, alongside the array of persuasive techniques that his mentor explained. The interview at Bastable & Co, a medium sized commercial practice in Birmingham, an opportunity that had coincidentally emerged soon afterwards, was an ideal chance to put everything to the test.
Craven had only felt hesitant during the coaching when advised to try to play a sympathy card at some point in the course of an interview – ‘family, personal, whatever’ – and even more uncomfortable when he had been put on the spot to come up with something fitting the description then and there. He had reluctantly disclosed the fact that his mother was in a nursing home, her faculties continuing to decline, and that he spent many a weekend making the long journey from Stafford to Leeds to see her. He had found the enthusiastic reaction to his private disclosure rather distasteful, but had held his peace. At least he had been fortuitously spared any pressure to share a deep health related secret of his own.
Craven was afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome. He was acutely aware that it comprised a most unforgiving form of autistic mental condition that played havoc with his ability to come to any natural understanding of the world at large and those around him. He had never been provided with any formal medical diagnosis of the condition, but had gradually worked out for himself that he was a sufferer. It had started with a once trusted school friend’s indiscreet comment that he had taken to heart, and had led to many a subsequent lonely night occupied with online searching, meticulous study of medical guidebooks, and self analysis. As he examined his day to day life experiences and setbacks, he was left in little doubt. He could find no other explanation for the difficulties he regularly faced in interacting with others on a social basis. His conclusions had frightened him to the core. And it was plain that there was nothing whatsoever about his predicament that he might ever be in a position to change. He could only aim to cope.
Craven had at least been able to work out that he fell within the high functioning Asperger’s spectrum. As was the case with most sufferers at that level, he had never found that the condition caused him any day to day difficulty in earning a living. He followed careful routines and was grateful for the mundane nature of the work itself. But this small mercy had not dissuaded him from resolving to keep his discoveries private. Save for members of a local support group, he had only spoken of the condition with a select few whom he could not avoid telling, choosing otherwise to rely on coping strategies. The last occasion when he had broken his vow to any greater extent, in the mistaken belief that it would bring him sympathy and understanding in the face of his then imminent redundancy, had backfired on him and left a deep mental scar.
As he sat and waited for his interviewers to finish their private conversation, it was plain to Craven that telling any prospective employer about his condition, at a time when employment opportunities in the legal profession were few and far between, was out of the question.
“Please come back in.” Craven snapped back out of his private thoughts and looked up. Even he could not mistake the broad smile on the face of Rufus Squire, one of his two interviewers. “I think you’ll be pleased with what we’re going to tell you.”
He obediently followed Squire back into the meeting room. As he resumed his seat, he could not help noticing that the picture at the bottom of the document in front of Squire was no longer unmarked, and had been scribbled on in red ink…..surely that’s not devil horns? His curiosity was quickly extinguished as Squire deftly turned the page over and took up the conversation once more.
“Well, Tony and I have had a chat, and we like what we see, and we think we’re prepared to take a chance. As we explained, we were really looking for a qualified solicitor for this role, but you’ve come recommended and you’ve impressed us today, and we think there’s every chance you’ll fit in nicely here at Bastables.”
Craven could scarcely believe his luck. He had taken great pains to follow all the coaching on interview technique that had been a closed book to him for so long, unnatural as it had been to go beyond mere straight and honest answers and to engage in role playing. Keeping eye contact. Praising the interviewers’ questions. False smiles and laughter. The odd touch of exaggeration, balanced by flattery. And all of that actually coming together, over a vacancy like this one?
“That’s really kind of you, Mr Squire.”
“It’s Rufus.”
Craven was caught by his natural deference to anyone he perceived as a superior. Especially anyone with a slightly unusual first name. He quickly remembered his briefing on interview technique and made eye contact, forcing a smile.
“Thank you – Rufus.” Craven glanced quickly away from Squire and tried to catch the attention of the stern looking man beside him. But Anthony Wagstaff was evidently deep in concentration as he read through his interview notes, pen in hand, and Craven found himself tongue tied. Fortunately he was spared further discomfort when Squire fixed him with another beaming smile.
“Let me just recap on what’s brought us together today. As I’ve explained, we were waiting for one of our associates to come back from maternity leave, and we only found out a month ago that she’d decided to take her full entitlement rather than come back early as she’d promised. Women, eh?”
The remark and the braying laugh that accompanied it left Craven with a fleeting vision of the medieval kings and barons once occupying the castles whose history he obsessively followed in his free time. He felt a touch of embarrassment at Squire’s comment, more out of surprise than offence, but managed to keep a straight face and answered only with a faint nod.
“Anyway, and this is the real reason why you’re here today, we thought we’d be able to solve the problem once our two firms had merged on the first of April.” Squire gestured towards Wagstaff, who had by now looked up but seemed just as forbidding. “One of Tony’s assistants from Lewis Hackett was lined up to come over from their office in Edgbaston to hold the fort at Bastables, working under one of my colleagues, but for some unaccountable reason she got cold feet and resigned. Hope it was nothing personal!”
His laughter this time struck Craven as even more contrived, but again he managed to nod and smile.
“Then blow me down, one of the other associates here comes in and tells me she’s up the duff and all set to join the baby club, and she’s decided to take every single day of her pre-birth maternity leave. Only a few weeks more in the office.” As Squire pulled a contrived face, Craven averted his eyes. “Which leaves me with a pile of top quality commercial dispute work, desperately in need of someone keen and enthusiastic with balls – I mean, with the balls to take the job on. And now you’ve walked through the door. I think you’re our man. How about it?”
Craven was not to know that Squire had interviewed two other potential recruits in the preceding ten days and had offered the job to both of them, only to be turned down on each occasion. But this time Squire was well aware that his candidate was likely to be anxious, not merely keen, to accept the position after a prolonged and continuing spell of forced idleness following his redundancy.
For his own part, Craven’s urge to seize the first chance in weeks to start earning a living again was checked by his disquiet at the manner in which Squire had confirmed his offer. But he knew that he had little choice.
“I’m very pleased. When would you like me to start? I’m not working at the moment, as you know. I could start next Monday if you wanted.”
Squire and Wagstaff exchanged glances.
“I think it would suit us better if you joined up on the first Tuesday after Easter.” Squire checked a nearby calendar. “That’s the first working day of the newly merged firm.  Two and a bit weeks from now. We’re having a computer systems overhaul next week, we’ll be closing our books at the end of the month, and we go forward together under our new banner straight afterwards. It’s also when Caroline Shore’s going to start handing her files over, before earth mother syndrome kicks in.” Another braying laugh accompanied the witticism. “You’ll fit in much better then.”
For the first time since Craven had been invited back into the meeting room, Wagstaff spoke.
“I agree. It’s enough of a nightmare for Rufus and me to cope with making all this happen. You’ll be far better coming on board once there’s less chaos. It’s going to be bad enough having to run a single firm from separate offices.”
Try as he might, Craven could not understand why the logistics of two law firms merging their practices should count against him starting earlier and bringing his frustrating spell of unemployment to an end. He almost spoke up, but remembered his interview coaching and nodded his head, forcing another smile.
“Now, let’s go over the main terms.” Squire reached for a checklist. Ten minutes later, with the promise of a letter in the post to confirm what he had just been told, Craven was left with the impression that the starting salary was very much at the lower end of the range that he had been led to understand might be on offer. Once the cost of his commuting was reckoned in, he would not be any better off in real terms than he had been in his previous role, much closer to home. But he knew full well that he was in no position either to choose or to try to negotiate for more. He listened politely until Squire asked him if he had any questions.
“Er…not right now. I’ll probably think of some in the next couple of weeks, though.”
“Just email them to my secretary. I’ll make sure they’re answered.” Squire stood up, and the dour Wagstaff finally showed a more human side as he reached across the table and offered a handshake, which Craven gratefully accepted. “Let me show you out. As I said, we’ll make sure all the paperwork’s with you by the weekend. Paul, it’ll be a real pleasure to welcome you to the firm.”
As Squire opened the meeting room door and strode across the reception area towards the exit, a sudden thought struck Craven as he followed in Squire’s wake.
“Can I just check something, Mr Squire…er, sorry, I mean, Rufus? Should I let Ripple Recruitment know about what you’ve told me?”
In an instant, Squire’s expression changed to a frown. Craven felt an all too familiar wave of confusion. He knew full well from his research into his own mental weaknesses that interpreting another person’s facial change was something he could never hope to be entirely sure about. For one awful moment he wondered if he might have thrown away the chance of a fresh start in the legal profession after all. But just as quickly, Squire’s charm was back.
“Oh no, no, no. That’s not the way this is done. Just leave it all to us. We’re paying the fee, so we have to follow procedures. Nothing to worry about at all.”
“It’s just…” Craven tailed off, as Squire held the door open, smiling broadly as Craven shook his outstretched hand. “Er…thank you very much again. I’ll see you in April.”
“Right you are, Paul.” In a moment Squire was gone, and Craven found himself alone in the street outside Bastable & Co’s office. It quickly sunk in that his career problems would soon be at an end, and the soul destroying months that had seen him involuntarily barred out of earning a living in the legal profession would soon be over. The welcoming coffee shop across the road was too tempting to pass by in favour of an early train back home to Stafford. He was soon sitting alone in a far corner armed with a large white coffee, the myriad choices of exotic brews on the baristas’ menu remaining a closed book to him.
Craven felt a strong urge to share his good news, but as he pulled out his mobile phone he hesitated. His widowed mother remained in a distant nursing home and would be unlikely to understand more than a few words of anything he told her. His few close friends were not much more likely to appreciate interruption during the working day. This left one obvious person to call. But after only four rings, the voicemail message kicked in. Ending the call without waiting for the tone, he keyed in a text message, taking his usual pains to ensure that it was grammatically perfect.
“Bastables offered me the job twenty minutes ago. I am really pleased. They will confirm it with you. Thank you very much for all of your efforts in helping me. I really appreciate them. Regards, Paul.”
As he sent the message and reached for his coffee cup once more, he was in no doubt that Wayne Avery would be delighted to have heard from him.

Monday 18th March
The weekend had done little to ease Karen’s anxiety about the dilemma she faced. With the time ticking ever closer to half past ten, and no sign of Avery despite the fact that she had asked to see him half an hour earlier, she wondered whether to pick up the phone and call him, reluctant as she was to show any sign of weakness.
Karen’s working day had at least begun with one piece of reasonably promising news. A candidate had secured a second interview for a position that offered an above average salary and the hope of a premium level commission for Ripple if he fitted the bill. But the news was dampened by Karen’s suspicion that her PA was brooding over some unexplained problem of her own. Before the new working week was fully under way, Dawn would normally be eager to chat about how she had spent her weekend. On this particular Monday, having turned up for work much earlier than usual, she was surprisingly quiet and distant. Karen had let it go, but she had resolved to grasp this particular nettle once she had tackled Avery.
Ten further minutes passed before her office door opened, without a preceding knock. Avery entered and sat down opposite.
“Just been following up a lead, off site. Probably won’t come to anything, but it was worth a try.”
Karen noted the lack of any apology for Avery’s lateness, but chose to bite back the cutting response that she had almost fired in his direction. Someone who might soon be out of a job deserved some slack, she decided, despite his lack of courtesy in making her wait.
“Forget it. How’s things?”
“Not great, to be honest. Hardly able to eat or sleep for the whole weekend.”
There was nothing in Avery’s appearance to suggest that he was suffering from lack of sleep or any other discomfort. But again Karen thought it better to let the response pass without letting it provoke her.
“Sorry to hear that. Would you like me to bring Dawn or Neeta in? Just to keep everything above board?”
“No need, thanks. And I’m not wired for sound today.” Avery deliberately turned back his lapels and patted his breast pocket.
“Thanks for that. Have you had a chance to think about what we discussed last week?”
There was an awkward silence before Avery replied.
“Well, I’m at a bit of a loss, to be honest. It really doesn’t seem that long ago when you were promising me a proper equity stake in the company.”
As Karen weighed up her answer, she wondered why Avery was not putting up more of a fight. There was nothing about his demeanour that showed concern for the threat to his livelihood, just some unspoken air of near insolence.
“Wayne, you know as well as I do that the good times are long gone. I have to be completely frank and open about this. Have you got anything to suggest? I’m genuinely undecided. This is your chance to say your piece. If you can come up with any good reason at all to make me scrap the whole idea and think it through again, I’m all ears. But I have to say you’re not making it any easier for me.”
“OK, then…how about bumping Neeta and giving me the finance division? Last in first out? That’s fair, isn’t it?”
Karen found it hard to believe that Avery had made such an absurd suggestion. The utter lack of enthusiasm or sincerity in Avery’s tone of voice spoke volumes.
“Oh, come on, Wayne, you know very well that you’ve only ever been involved in legal recruitment. Is that really the best you can do?”
Another awkward silence followed before Avery finally spared Karen the need to prompt him. The look he gave Karen was curious.
“Tell you what. Let’s have a half hour break. I need some more time to think.”
As Avery stood up, clearly assuming that he would have his way, Karen struggled to keep her temper in check. The disruption that the late start to the meeting had already inflicted upon her plans for the day was now in danger of escalating.
“OK, if you like. But I really need feedback, and I need it soon. It’s just as hard for me as it is for you.”
But Karen’s comment fell on stony ground. Avery was already half way towards the door. His only response was a nod as he left and closed the door behind him. Suppressing the temptation to curse out loud, Karen took a deep breath and phoned through for Dawn to join her.
“I don’t miss much, Karen. Something’s up, isn’t it?” As she came in and sat down, Dawn’s question was only to be expected.
“You’re right. I’d can’t really say anything more just yet, but I have a tricky situation with Wayne. Hopefully we’ll be able to work something out.”
“Are you OK? You don’t seem yourself today.” Karen asked.
 “I’m fine.” Dawn looked away. Karen was by now convinced that she was holding something back, and gave her an enquiring glance. But it elicited no further response, and they settled down to deal with the firm’s weekly cashflow review. The quarterly rent payment was only seven days away, and their examination of the figures for the week’s projected income and outgoings was generating little comfort.
Twenty minutes later, a ping from Karen’s computer terminal announced an incoming email. Noticing that it was from Avery, and not only headed Today’s Discussion but also marked with the red exclamation mark of urgency, Karen hurried to open it. She could hardly believe what she was reading.
Following on from what you said to me last week, you’ve clearly not changed your mind today about what you’re likely to inflict upon me in a few days’ time. So I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no point in staying here any longer. I think it’s best that I move on right now. Yes, right now. Work wise, it’s so quiet that I can’t see any point in arguing with you. It’s plain enough too that you wouldn’t be desperate for me to serve out my notice. Best that we go our separate ways today. Agreed?
I’ve attached a list of my key active matters, in the sense of scheduled candidate interviews with firms (three), second interviews pending (one, and frankly I wouldn’t hold your breath over that one) and CVs with firms waiting for responses (four). The rest, as far as I can see, are all nothing better than speculative mailshot fodder. I’m not due to see any new candidates right now either.
I won’t pretend this is enjoyable for either of us, so it’s sensible we keep it as painless as possible.
PS. Have also signed form to resign Ripple directorship too, effective today. On my desk in front of me as we speak. You can file it.’
Karen read the email twice more and gaped at the screen. Remembering that she was not alone in her office, she pushed the corner of the monitor to enable Dawn to read Avery’s email for herself. Her mind racing, Karen’s eye fell on the cashflow spreadsheet that the two of them had been working through. She had tentatively earmarked the next month’s anticipated profits to be severely dented by the need to pay out Avery’s redundancy and notice entitlement…..but if he’s taking the initiative to walk out now, she thought, surely he’s just blown his severance pay altogether?
Karen was spared from further confusion as the door opened and Avery stood in the threshold. There was a curious grin on his face, which Karen found jarring.
“Bit of a stunner, isn’t it? Thought it would be. I can’t see any other way, though. Let’s just call it a day. Clean break here and now.”
The cocky arrogance of Avery’s comment only added to Karen’s disbelief. Thoughts were still running through her mind about how much of a financial windfall it would be for the firm, if he was serious about resigning then and there without waiting for any redundancy payment. She stood up.
“Wayne, have you thought this through properly? You’re really wanting to leave straight away? What about…..”
“Straight away.” The interruption saved Karen from having to concede that she had little enthusiasm to talk Avery out of the course of action upon which he was clearly fixed. “It’s got to be for the best. As long as you’re happy circulating your massive client base with the bad news. I’ll leave you to it.”
Offended as she was at Avery’s sarcasm, Karen refrained from rising to the bait. She glanced at Dawn and was met with a blank look. As it finally sunk in that Avery’s shock decision might be the best outcome for which she could ever have hoped, she offered Avery her hand.
“OK, Wayne, straight away it is.” The handshake was a pale shadow of Avery’s usual style, fine tuned by years of networking, and Karen noticed that he could not now bring himself to look her in the eye. “Do you want to clear your desk and go right now?”
“Not much left to clear. Should take me all of five minutes.” He bent down to embrace Dawn, who had not stood up, and kissed her on both cheeks to her evident discomfort. “I’ll put my head back round the door when I’m done.”
In a moment he was gone. While Dawn flicked her hair back into place and pulled out a mirror from her handbag, Karen fell into her chair once more.
“Tell me I’m not dreaming this.” She read Avery’s email once more. “I’ve spent the whole weekend bracing myself to go through with my first ever sacking, and face up to the price I’d have to pay for it. Now this has just happened.”
“I’m just as amazed as you are. I thought there was something in the air.” Dawn hesitated. Karen wondered if she was finally going to share some more information with her, only to be let down as she changed the subject. “I’d better tell the payroll people. And we’d better get back to this cashflow.”
“I guess so. Let’s see if we can get it done before Wayne comes out to say his goodbyes.”
They both returned to the task in hand. But it was not long before their concentration was broken by a loud crashing sound, supplemented by a torrent of foul language. Karen hurried down the corridor with Dawn not far behind. She pushed open the door to Avery’s office, and saw him shoving a filing cabinet drawer back into place with needless force, another cacophonous impact echoing round the thin office walls.
“Wayne, what on earth’s wrong?”
Avery spun round.
“Lost one of my tapes. Can’t find it anywhere.”
Karen realised that he was referring to the concealed recording device that had graced the previous week’s meeting.
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, of course it does!” The venom within his response took Karen by surprise. Avery sensed that he had overdone it and tried to backpedal. “I mean – it had something pretty important on it, and I can’t find it anywhere.”
It must be the tape from last week’s redundancy consultation, Karen thought. But it’s water under the bridge now. Why the fuss?
“Well, if it turns up, Dawn will get it back to you.” Dawn nodded. “Can’t you at least leave on a more harmonious note than this?”
For a brief moment, Avery’s look was thunderous. But it changed in an instant to an oily smirk.
“I suppose so. Just find it for me, Dawn. There’s a good girl.”
Avery made a point of quietly closing all of the cabinet and desk drawers that still remained open. He placed an ornate desk diary into his executive case and closed it shut.
“Well, I guess this is where we really do go our separate ways.” With one last comment, Avery made to take his leave. In an instant it was over, with a perfunctory handshake for Karen and a brief and emotionless kiss on the cheek for Dawn. The main glass door to the outside corridor closed behind Avery for the last time as Neeta emerged from her office.
“What was all that crashing and banging? I was in the middle of an important call.”
“Wayne’s gone.” Karen explained quickly. “Didn’t he tell you anything?”
“Not a word. Good riddance, if I’m allowed to say things like that. He never liked me, and to be perfectly frank I never liked him either. As far as I’m concerned, if we hear anything from him again, it will be far too soon and far too regrettable.”
Karen had no idea how accidentally prophetic her management accountancy specialist’s words would turn out.
* * * * *
“For Dawn? Is that it?”
“Yes, no second name.”
“And the address?”
“Ripple Recruitment, Second Floor, Regal House, Temple Street, Birmingham.”
“OK, let’s run over the message again. ‘Thank you for all your help last week. Everything worked out really well. I’d love to meet up with you again some time.’ Don’t you want to add your own name? Or a pet name, or something?”
“No, just leave it as it is, thanks.”
“Whatever you say. They’ll be with her first thing tomorrow.”

Tuesday 19th March
What should have been an ordinary working day for Dawn was derailed by two early and wholly unexpected interruptions.
She had only just sat down at her desk when the entry buzzer sounded. A delivery driver stood outside, holding an enormous bunch of flowers. Dawn was pleasantly surprised to discover that she herself was named as the recipient. Putting the flowers on her desk, she read the anonymous message card with curious interest.
“Taking the mickey again, Wayne?” She addressed thin air as the courier closed the door behind him, then thought again. There was someone else, this time last week…..who could it have been? Turning to her monitor screen, she called up the firm’s central diary, only to find that the entry she knew had been there for the previous Tuesday had been erased. As she frowned in disbelief, she thought about the paper copy she had taken when –
“Bloody hell. Look at this!”
Dawn spun round as Karen stormed up to her desk. It was obvious that something had tipped her all too volatile temper over the edge.....

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