Tony smacked his hand down on the table hard. “We’re all in this business to make money. End of story. I make money and I make thousands of customers happy,” he declared firmly. “And tens of thousands of fish miserable,” I retorted. “Your stock turnover is through the roof. I know what stock losses you’re incurring. I know what quantities you’re buying. And I know that you’re buying in from dodgy substandard suppliers abroad and not giving any business to our own struggling fish farms.” “You know a lot,” observed Tony acidly.
“Bet you have,” I persisted, thinking she was being modest.
“Dad was the guy who brought me up, but he wasn’t my biological dad.”
I looked up at her in surprise. This was news. Fi was going to have to explain things.
“OK. My mum got pregnant when she was eighteen, shock horror at the time, but had a miscarriage. Anyway, she came on holiday to England when she was twenty-two, met Dad and they got married. Eight years later, still no baby. Well, Mum knew it wasn’t her, and she knew Dad would never believe it was him, so she told Dad she was run down and needed to spend a couple of months in France. He assumed she was going to her mother’s but she stayed with one of her old schoolfriends and picked up guys! And when she was pregnant, she came home. I arrived a little prematurely, shall we say, after they were reunited!”
“I didn’t know till I was 21. Mum had given me a letter when she was dying, which she asked me to promise not to open until my twenty-first birthday. I kept my promise, and so, two years after Dad died, I found out he wasn’t my natural father.”
“How did you feel about that?” I asked. That must have been a total bombshell.
“Surprised, probably even a bit shocked, but it didn’t change anything. Dad was the guy who brought me up and was there for me. And he was a good dad. This other ‘dad’ was just a name. George-Frederic Mossard.”
“You know his name?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to try and find him or anything. He’s nothing to me.”
Good grief. That was a huge revelation.
“And Mum admitted that he was a kind, good looking guy, but as thick as two bricks. And I inherited the bricks, not Dad’s business acumen. I honestly don’t think I’m bright enough to be a businesswoman.”
“Nonsense Fi. You’re very smart. It’s not that hard, bookkeeping. They do courses at the tech. But anyway, Gloria would help you to start with. She’s brilliant.”
Fi looked tempted. “I’ll think about it,” she nodded.
“Do, because at the rate we’re picking up fly-tying clients, you’ll need to be official fairly soon.”
“Oh God, will I get into trouble for today?”
“Nope. You did that for free, remember?” I winked.
“So I did. Thanks for the seventy-five quid you just happened to give me out of the goodness of your heart.”
“That’s the spirit!”
Normally I’d potter off down to the pub to meet up with friends if I wasn’t still at the office on a Sunday night, but it was another night in. Fi was looking up stuff online about business start-ups and I had a reading backlog. I regularly got fishing books sent to me in the hope I’d review them favourably in my column or blog. I had four sat on my desk now, and they’d been waiting a month or so for attention. It wasn’t fair on the authors not to do them as quickly as I could. So I set to.
Monday and Tuesday were ridiculously busy. It was starting to seem like we were getting too good a reputation. New clients were turning up all the time. Tuesday evening was Jordan-free at judo, not a bad thing, and I wouldn’t be here on Thursday now, so that awkwardness could be put aside for dealing with for a while longer.
And then suddenly it was Wednesday. Graham had had a good break so he was full of energy. He was very excited about the evening out with Tony. He’d never been invited along before. Fi and I were meant to be going to France the next evening. But Fi called me mid-morning to say she was at the accountants again, still trying to get her P60 off them, and they’d told her there was a creditors’ meeting on Friday morning, which she really should be at. I got Julian to get her a seat on the Friday flight out. Half an hour later I got another call from Fi. The bookshop manager she’d just talked to wanted her to come back late on Friday afternoon for an interview. She wouldn’t be able to get the Friday night flight now either.
“No problem, Fi. I’ll get Jules to change your flight to Saturday. You can get a taxi to the airport this end and I’ll collect you from Limoges.”
“OK.” She sighed. “I’d really wanted to help with the netting and chipping, but I can’t turn down this interview. Sorry to be a pain.”
“Not a pain, babe. I’m pleased you’ve got good news.” But I wasn’t. I wanted Fi to end up working for me.
“Oh Fi,” I remembered quickly. “Could you get something for me in town? If you have time.”
“Sure,” she replied good naturedly.
“Do you know Tanner’s, the hunting and fishing shop on Spender Street? Could you buy me a decoy duck please?”
“You’re not going to start shooting ducks on the lakes, are you?” she sounded worried.
“No, of course not!” I reassured her. “I have a cunning plan that I need a plastic duck for!”
“OK then. Male or female?”
“I don’t think it matters. Oh, and um,” I was pushing it now. “I’m nearly out of fags …”
“Which sort shall I get for you?” she enquired sweetly. “The ones that kill you or the ones that make you dead?”
She had a very good point.
“Tell you what, don’t worry about the fags,” I back-pedalled.
Fi sighed. “Look, I’ll get you some if you really want me to. It’s just I’m not a fan of cigarettes. Both my parents died way too young of smoking-related diseases. The damn things should be banned in my opinion.”
I had to give up smoking – I just had to now.
“I’m sorry, Fi,” I apologised. “Please, forget them.”
“No, I shouldn’t preach,” Fi said. “You’re an adult, you know what you’re doing. I’ll get you your usuals.”
“Thanks.” Phew. Unintentional nicotine withdrawal averted. “I’ll pay you back tonight.”
“No problem. See you later.” She hung up.
I got onto Julian and he rearranged Fi’s ticket. We were sorted.
I was last to arrive at the restaurant that evening. The others weren’t hard to spot. Tony Frobisher had plumped for the table slap bang in the middle of the restaurant, so that everyone could see him. He was a big, loud man with a red face, so he was hard to miss anyway. They were drinking prosecco, the closest the Italians get to champagne. The waiter took the glistening bottle out of the ice bucket and poured me a glass. That would be all the alcohol I drank tonight till I got home. Adam never scrupled about drinking and driving, but then he had a vast expanse of hyper-fortified BMW bodywork around him in case he had an accident. My Fiat’s bodywork would come out the worst if a fly flew into it.
Adam looked smart in some designer label suit or another, while Graham looked strange in a shirt and tie. I hadn’t seen him dressed like that, not since his interview with me all those years ago when his Mum had obviously forced him into something smart. Presumably she’d done the same thing tonight.
I nodded to Adam and then reluctantly shook Frobisher’s sweaty hand. Then I offered to shake Graham’s.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” I teased.
Graham rolled his eyes but smiled. “You clean up nicely,” I told him.
Now that the party was complete, the waiter brought us the menus and we browsed.
“Where are the pizzas?” hissed Graham in alarm under his breath to me, as Tony and Adam talked about the wines on the wine list.
“This isn’t Pizza Hut, Graham,” I whispered back. “They don’t do pizzas here.”
“But it’s Italian!” protested Graham, horrified. “I wanted to have pizza and garlic bread and then tiramisu. Now I don’t know what to have!”
“I’ll find something for you,” I promised.
I leafed my way through the huge menu. I hadn’t been feeling that that hungry, despite a hard day’s work and not much lunch. But on seeing the descriptions of so many beautiful dishes, suddenly I was ravenous. I was spoilt for choice but eventually I settled on a prosciutto, melon and fig starter, followed by an intriguing black squid ink risotto with lobster, prawns and green onion vinaigrette. I was more conservative in my choice for Graham. I opted for a beef antipasto platter for him, followed by tagliatelle with cream of walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, olives and prosciutto de parma. Graham was a bit of a nut freak. Adam chose the most expensive dishes he could find, on principle, and Tony did the same to show off. He ordered two bottles of a very nice red wine, Barolo Acclivi 2005 DOCG, at something like sixty quid a bottle. I asked for San Pelligrino mineral water.
Conversation was general for the first half of the evening. Tony was a surprisingly entertaining dining companion, with lots of amusing anecdotes and a wide general knowledge. It was while we were tucking into our main courses that Tony turned to business.
“I think four million is a fair price for your fishery,” he suddenly said.
Graham choked on his mouthful of tagliatelle. I whacked him sharply on the back.
“We’re not for sale,” replied Adam firmly.
“Everything’s for sale,” retorted Tony. “Everyone has a price.”
“Not us.” That was Graham, now recovered and emboldened by too much Barolo.
We all looked at him in surprise. He’d been keeping fairly quiet up to now, apart from the coughing fit, just enjoying being in classy surroundings.
“Cocky sod,” remarked Tony drily, looking at Graham. But then he smiled. “I like that. You’ll have a job at the new Frobisher’s fishery.”
He looked at me and Adam.
“Four and a half.”
“We’re not worth that,” I pointed out matter-of-factly. “And you know it. What are you up to?”
“Marcus! Marcus! Always so sceptical,” he guffawed.
“When you’re involved, yes,” I shrugged.
Tony wiped his mouth.
“As you know, I’m doing rather well with my fisheries. I’ve pretty much got a monopoly in the south-west. All nice little earners. So, I want to spread into this area. But you’re the fly in the ointment. You’ve got such a good reputation round here, I don’t think many people would give a Frobisher’s set-up a look.”
“So, I’ll take you over and have your place as my flagship fishery,” he announced coolly.
“Oh, no you won’t,” I replied evenly. “You’ll most likely flog my beautiful fish to the highest bidder, fill the lakes in and sell the land for building. That’s the only way you could justify offering us so much.”
Graham was watching us, eyes wide. Adam had an amused sneer on his face. He was happy for me to deal with Tony on his behalf. We were both self-made businessmen. Adam had been born into the rich, business-owning class, but Tony and I had got where we were today the hard way. Admittedly Tony was doing orders of magnitude better than I was, but he’d lost his morals on the way. I liked who I saw in the mirror when I was shaving every morning.
Tony looked at me hard. He smiled, but it was forced. He didn’t like that I could see through him.
“Nonsense,” he scoffed.
But it wasn’t. I knew it, he knew it, he knew I knew it. I hadn’t worked for fifteen years to have the beautiful lakes I had managed all that time to disappear under an overcrowded housing estate. Or have my cottage bulldozed.
“Supposing it is nonsense,” I went on. “So, you’ll keep the lakes. I’ve got them at an optimum stocking level. They’re healthy, they’re thriving, they’re quality fish. You’ll stuff a couple more tons into each lake and stress them to their limits. You’ll have huge losses, they’ll be stunted and miserable. The only reason your average Frobisher’s customers, fishing elbow to elbow, will catch them is because they want to commit suicide. God knows your clients are too stupid to catch them otherwise. Plus you’re into trout. We’ve got a strong carp element, and now I have my cats.”
I returned to my meal.
“I’m diversifying,” Tony told me. “I’ll have five carp lakes on stream – excuse the pun – by next spring.”
“Full of cheap crap Eastern European carp, no doubt,” I predicted.
“Actually, French carp. I have connections with the continent.”
I snorted. That didn’t sound very likely. Tony wouldn’t bother investing in French carp, which were acknowledged to be the best out there.
“And I see you don’t have a very high opinion of my clients,” remarked Tony edgily. “And that’s strange, because you’ve never met any.”
“Oh yes I have,” I told him.
“I doubt it,” he sneered.
“I’ve fished at two of your so-called fisheries,” I said.
“Impossible!” he declared. “You’re on my blacklist. I’m not having you snooping around and writing about me in your precious column.”
“Check your records. You’ll find that I signed in as Charles Tennant at your Applethorpe and Highgreen fisheries. I can’t remember the exact dates, but it was sometime last June and October.”
Tony snorted. “My staff wouldn’t have let you in without your rod licence.”
“Oh yes they would,” I shrugged. “I told Applethorpe I’d forgotten it and slipped the guy a twenty not to mind too much, and I handed in a really crap forgery at Highgreen. Your man didn’t suspect a thing. Well-trained staff you employ.”
Anger flashed across Tony’s face, but then he gave a short bark of laughter.
“You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that, Marcus. So you got in. Why?”
“I needed to check out the opposition. Plus I’d heard plenty of stories about what goes on in your fisheries. I wanted to see for myself. I was going to visit one more and then do an exposé. Probably still will.”
I finished my risotto and pushed the plate a few inches away from me.
“And what will you say?” Tony wanted to know.
“The truth. Which stinks.” I selected a small, poppy-seeded roll from the bread basket and began to wipe the last of the juice from my plate.
“How about I raise my standards?” offered Tony.
“You won’t. You’re just after profit.”
Tony smacked his hand down on the table hard. It made the plates rattle and all of us jump.
“And you’re not?” he demanded. “We’re all in this business to make money. End of story. I make money and I make thousands of customers happy,” he declared firmly.
“And tens of thousands of fish miserable,” I retorted. “Your stock turnover is through the roof. I’ve done some sniffing around. I know what stock losses you’re incurring. I know what quantities you’re buying. And I know that you’re buying in from dodgy substandard suppliers abroad and not giving any business to our own struggling fish farms.”
“You know a lot,” observed Tony acidly.
I shrugged and finished my roll.
Adam caught my eye and gave me a short nod of approval. He was on my side for once. Graham was still wide-eyed at my brashness.
“I admire your candour, Marcus,” Tony said eventually. He’d been contemplating his glass of wine for several minutes. “And I admit you work to very high standards. Very.” He twizzled his wine glass around in his hands. “But, boys, I’m going to get your fishery. It’s just a question of time. Salute.”
He raised his glass and drank it, and winked at Graham. Then he summoned the waiter over and asked for the dessert trolley. The waiter cleared the table then trundled it over to us.
“So what would you like, gentlemen?” Tony asked us. “Have what you want, and as much as you want. Money no object.” He wasn’t upset by what I’d said to him this evening. He’d heard it all before, and chose to ignore it.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said, looking over the creamy, calorific puddings. They were tempting, but I needed to keep in shape for Fi. I was almost 38. I couldn’t risk going to seed just yet, not if I wanted to get me a hot chick like her. Plus I was pretty well stuffed.
Graham began to quiz the waiter as to what all the confections were. I got up and went to the gents and wasn’t that pleased that Tony followed me in.
“We may not see eye to eye, Marcus,” he said as we peed, “but I’m prepared to offer you a very good deal to get that fishery of yours.”
“I’m only a ten per cent shareholder,” I shrugged.
“Maybe so, but you have a lot of influence. You persuade Adam to sell, and there’s a straight million for you.”
“Yeah right!” I laughed, but then saw Tony’s face. “Bloody hell, you’re serious, aren’t you,” I realised with alarm, as I did up my flies.
“Deadly serious,” confirmed Tony. “I need that property.”
“There’s Liam Woods too,” I pointed out. “He has a big share of the fishery.”
“Liam’s a pushover. He’ll do whatever Adam says.” That was probably true. “Get Adam to do the right thing and you’re a rich man. Everyone knows you do all the work and get treated like dirt. You could get your own place with a million, plus your share of the sale proceeds.”
That was also probably true. My own place. I allowed myself to daydream for a moment. That would be brilliant. I could get used to that idea. Summers’ Fishery. Awesome. But then I got a grip and brought myself back to reality.
“Not gonna happen, Tony,” I said. “We won’t sell.”
“OK. Million and a quarter for you, if you do. Cash in hand. No-one need ever know, especially not the taxman. Think about it, Marcus. That’s a lot of money. You could buy that pretty biker chick you’ve got your eye on some nice sparkly things. Girls like that sort of thing. They’re very grateful, if you know what I mean. And for God’s sake, you could get yourself a decent car. You’re still driving that Italian heap of shit around I believe.” Tony knew a bit too much about me for my comfort – namely about Fi and my Fiat. “Thank God their food is better than their cars. Think about it. Think hard about it.”
I shot him a sceptical glance. But he looked squarely at me. “I’m relying on you to do the right thing, Marcus.” He turned and left. “It’ll be for the best.”
I stared after him. Was that a threat? No. Surely he knew he couldn’t buy me. I mean, after I’d had a good go at him tonight about the appalling fishery mismanagement that went on in his venues. Weird though.
I glanced at my watch. Five to ten. Time to be off. I’d had enough of Tony’s company. I joined the others at our table.
“Coffee?” offered Tony calmly, acting as though we’d never just had that surreal conversation.
“I’ll pass thanks,” I replied. “I need to get back. Things to do. Thanks for a nice meal.”
I forced myself to shake hands with the slimy bastard.
“We’ll keep in touch,” he called after me.
I rather hoped we wouldn’t.
I climbed into my car, and realised I felt slightly spooked by what had gone on in the rest room. Tony Frobisher was a business shark, everyone knew that. But was he a criminal too? Was he in the mafia? Could he really lean on me and make me do what he wanted?
“Pull yourself together,” I said loudly and firmly. For fuck’s sake, I was big and broad and a black belt in judo. If anyone came to break my fingers, they’d be in for a shock. I wasn’t scared of anyone.