There were only three items on the agenda - thick, starchy paper with a hint of ivory somewhere in it. Three items only. This for an emergency board meeting of the very largest company the world had ever seen.
Had never seen, James Mutimer-Gaskin corrected himself. For the world had never seen the Ouroboros Group. Not Corporate Watch, not Greenpeace, not the United Nations; even the World Trade Organisation and the Bilderberg group were only, perhaps, vaguely aware of it. The Ouroboros Group was too all encompassing, too clever and too… diaphanous; that was the best word. He rehearsed to himself; it was too all encompassing, too clever and too diaphanous for that.
James Mutimer-Gaskin, Head of Commercial Operations, was one of the smartest business operators the world had ever… had never seen. That he was of upper class British background was all anyone knew about him. His hands had never been dirty in his life and he had never worn the same suit or slept with the same woman twice. A decade ago he had chosen to stop his, frankly astonishing, rise through the ranks of the world's multinationals, apparently opting to fade into semi-retirement, very very rich indeed, at the tender age of just 42. He had been on the board of the Ouroboros Group for nine and a half years since. During that time James had never appeared on The Times 100 Rich List, on the Fortune 500, on any tax returns anywhere or even in Hello!. James Mutimer-Gaskin, and the two other men and one woman in the room were the most powerful people on the planet. It could be argued that the US president could destroy much of the world at the touch of a button, but James and his associates could in turn wipe out the USA in just a few short days with a mere flex of their hypertrophied financial muscle.
There were just three items on the emergency agenda. Number one: Ratification of Previous Minutes, number two: Progress Report and number three: Any Other Business.
The smartest businessman the world had genuinely never seen was stood behind a pale wooden table and a plain silver chair was pushed well back out of the way behind him. Short, wearing a light blue polo shirt (the top button undone), with both hands resting easily in the pockets of his smooth, exquisitely pressed canvas slacks, he was somewhere between 40 and 70 with thin well-coiffed ash-blond hair. On the table a black laptop lay under a facedown copy of the agenda. Malvern Radcliffe III watched them all with an intense, thin smile. The pale marble of the small meeting room made his hair seem almost transparent, and washed out the faint network of lines around his eyes, making him almost seem much younger than he truly was.
"Hello everyone," his somewhat croaky voice began. James always found his voice very calming. The slight drawl of the American South somehow reassuring. Trustworthy. Of course, he was anything but.
"Thank you for coming so very promptly..."
Jocella Devan, head of Governmental Transactions, always the most vocal, began to speak, but Radcliffe gently raised and lowered both his soft hands, begging their indulgence, smiling.
"Really, Jocella," he appealed, "this won't take very long."
Jocella sat back in her chair and crossed her thin legs faultlessly, just as a very expensive finishing school had taught her to do some 40 years previously.
The smile faded on Radcliffe's face but did not entirely disappear.
"Thank you for coming so very promptly. I appreciate how very busy you've all been. To begin with, I must ask whether anyone here wishes to raise any issues regarding the minutes of the previous meeting?"
Joaquin Rochelle, Head of Extralegal Operations, a large, fit-looking man in a suit so well tailored as to resemble a second skin, glanced smoothly over at James and Jocella. There was a small silence. James looked back at Joaquin, who stroked his chin. It seemed clear that the two of them did not get along very well. Radcliffe folded his arms and waited patiently for the two Alpha-males to finish. Jocella sighed.
"Excellent!" grinned Radcliffe. "Then that leads us neatly on to item two. The progress report."
Radcliffe looked about ready to burst: the small, restless motions of his fingers giving away the rush of glee beneath his smile. In a show of deliberate restraint he wheeled slowly around and deliberately pushed his chair in towards the table with both hands, then walked around it and sat carefully down. He clasped his hands in front of him, looking down between his arms at the pale grain of the table. James could hear his brogued feet tap out a brief complicated rhythm. After perhaps two seconds he glanced up.
"I have truly excellent news," he exhaled, well aware of the expectation focussed upon him from
all three sides.
"As all three of you know, the Ouroboros Group is a company unlike any other. You know that we have for very many years - longer than any of you have been with us - have for many years been dedicated to a unique goal of…" he shook his head slightly, "awe-inspiring…" and met their gazes, "..scale".
Radcliffe stayed seated, arms clasped in front of him. His voice remained steady with perhaps the merest undercurrent of breathless excitement.
"I am so very very pleased to announce that thanks to all of your immensely hard work, commitment and, let us make no bones about it, your brilliance, we have within the last 48 hours realised that goal."
He paused and swung his slowly nodding head around the table, meeting their blinking eyes individually.
"The Ouroboros Group, through an extensive network of shell companies, investments, agents, holdings, straightforward acquisitions and," he licked his dry lips and finishing with a shadow of a glance at Rochelle, "certain other means, the Ouroboros Group can now be said to own planet Earth. Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations!"
James' expression remained fixed but his heart seemed to be beating much too hard and his eyes had widened very slightly.
Rochelle coughed. Jocella uncrossed her legs with balletic grace and leaned in towards the table.
Radcliffe had unclasped his hands and laid them flat upon the wood grain that, James suddenly realised, precisely complemented his hair. He was smiling broadly.
"Not only have we achieved this great goal but, due to your extensive synergies and inspired downsizing and restructuring efforts, we have achieved it with a net saving of 3.24% upon all previous estimates. I would just like to reiterate my thanks to you all. Without the three of you we couldn't have achieved this… this incredible goal. Thank you."
Radcliffe seemed genuinely moved.
"But, moving on to item three on the agenda."
Jocella gave a small cough and blinked twice, but said nothing.
Radcliffe smiled indulgently at her. "Item three on the agenda: Any other business. There is just one piece. All three of you will please note that following on from the achievement of our stated aims and in accordance with your contracts, your terms of employment with the Ouroboros Group are now concluded. You will of course be remunerated - immediately - precisely as agreed in your contracts. Mr Mutimer-Gaskin, Ms Devan, Mr Rochelle: you are each of you now the richest human beings on the planet. I wish you a long life and good health. Goodbye."
With this, Radcliffe stood up, tucked his metal chair under the table and turned to leave. James inhaled sharply, expecting to say something, but nothing came to mind. Rochelle sat nodding thoughtfully to himself, eyes down. Jocella looked as James imagined he himself must look: rather confused. There was a tiny click as the door closed behind Radcliffe.
None of them spoke as they took the elevator back down to the ground floor. The lift attendant didn't speak either, but of course that wasn't unusual. In the modest lobby dustsheets lay over the front desk and chairs, and as they left into the dark and empty streets, canyoned by office blocks on either side, James noticed a removal lorry with three men watching them from the cab, eating sandwiches. Radcliffe had had this encounter planned down to the second, he realised.
Well, he, James Mutimer-Gaskin, had the rest of his life just as well thought out. He was out of this business now, done with it. From now on it was all tropical islands and…and what? A spark of something like insecurity coursed down James' spine as he paused before the empty cocoon of his Jaguar.
He grunted a noncommittal farewell to the other two as they each stepped into the upholstered safety of their chauffeured cars; Rochelle's Rolls and Jocella's Mercedes. Rochelle raised a hand but Jocella said nothing.
As the expensive fleet began to pull away from the kerb, acres of reflected fluorescent windows flowing smoothly over the polished shells of the cars, there came a sudden and perfect semi-tone honk of the horn from the Mercedes. James tapped on the divider to tell his driver to stop, folded the paper he was holding in front of his eyes and rolled his window smoothly down.
Jocella was leaning from her Mercedes' rear-window and pointing with urgent stabbing motions at all the surrounding walls of corporate glass and concrete. James followed the line of her finger upwards.
Overhead, without any fuss, the office lights were going out.
For those of you who might be interested, this story is a satirical rejigging of a much better story by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, called The Nine Billion Names Of God.
If this still leaves you none the wiser (shame on you!) in The Nine Billion Names Of God some computer salesman are mystified as to why an obscure group of Tibetan (I think) monks want some very powerful computer hardware. It turns out the monks believe that the only purpose of humanity is to produce the nine billion names of God, and they have realised that a computer can do this far more quickly than they can... The computer salesman chuckle about this but when the computer finishes its run the story ends with the salesmen looking up and the line - Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.
It's a wonderful and really quite powerful story and I wanted to appropriate some of that power for my own ends.