She took a moment to try and control her breathing but realised it was useless. Her heart was stabbing against her chest and her head was swirling with a thousand different apologies and excuses. Above her she could see a tall, slim immaculately scented secretary rising from behind a frosted glass desk, who, standing silently in front of Sarah, pointed her towards the door. Sarah tried to steady herself, before stepping awkwardly inside, catching the edge of her jacket on the doorway as she did so. How could you excuse a hundred million dollars, she asked herself? How could you ever come up with an apology that big?
Telmont's desk was at the back of the room, almost thirty feet from the door. A sheer pane of glass rose up from behind him, looking out across the Thames and then onto the City beyond. Sarah walked towards the centre of the room, her feet moving swiftly over the stripped pine floorboards before she realised there was nowhere to sit down. Aside from the large, black leather chair behind his desk, the room was entirely empty.
"Capital," said Telmont, rising slowly from his desk. "Is the hardest the hardest thing in the world to accumulate, but the easiest thing in the world to destroy."
He was no more than five six, five seven, with a slight droop to his shoulders, thick, tanned skin, and a voice that deepened every time he struck a vowel. "I'm sorry," Sarah replied, aware her tone was cracking.
"Sorry," repeated Telmont, seeming to toss the word into the air and watch it tumble to the floor. "I imagine you are sorry." He paused, looking away from her, his eyes drifting towards the window. "But not nearly as sorry, I suppose, as my investors. They are probably a hundred million times sorrier than you are."
Sarah could feel the tears starting to streak her mascara; ten or twenty times sorrier, perhaps, she thought to herself, but not a hundred million times sorrier. Nobody could be that sorry. "It just seemed to run away from me," she said.
Telmont turned away from the window, and with a single motion of his index finger, beckoned her towards the desk. She walked slowly across the floor, resting her hands next to his computer. "Most of the women cry," he said. "Sometimes even the men. But the women cry because they are sorry about the money, I think. The men cry because they are sorry for themselves."
Sarah looked into his eyes, and saw that he was laughing at her. "If I use this password," Telmont continued, his hands running across the keyboard. "Then I can change all the numbers coming up onto the Reuters and Bloomberg screens. I can even feed in dummy stories."
It took a moment for Sarah to realise what he was saying; the words hung in the space between them, as though they were just there for decoration. Then it hit her; the last two hours had just been an elaborate joke, created by rigging the computers so it looked as if she had lost a fortune. She could feel the relief wash through her, yet at the same time she could feel a beat of anger drumming close to her chest. "It was just a joke," she said slowly. "I didn't really lose any money."
Telmont smiled: "Fortunately so," he answered.
"I suppose I should have realised," Sarah said softly. "Nobody gets that unlucky."
Telmont shook his head: "People get that unlucky all the time," he said, standing away from the desk and walking across from the room. "This is more than a little joke we like to play on our new recruits. It is a matter of teaching them what it is like to lose. Only then will they realise how little they would care to repeat the experience."
Sarah turned her blue eyes up towards his. "I think I've learnt that now," she replied.
* * *
The good groove, thought Tom to himself. That just about captured it.
Later in the evening, he would find it hard to recall how those words slipped into his mind, nor the mood that accompanied them. They were fragments, shreds of a memory, explicable only in the context of a very different world from the one he inhabited now. And yet, at the time, just a few hours ago, they had seemed to express everything he felt.
Copyright James Harland, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author or publisher, Simon & Schuster.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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