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Two Women

Brian Freemantle

We will use the full weight of the law to expose and root out corruption… When abuses like this begin to surface in the corporate world, it is time to reaffirm the basic values that make capitalism work. There can be no capitalism without conscience, no wealth without character.

US President George W. Bush, demanding ‘new ethics of personal responsibility’ from American business leaders after a series of Wall Street scandals. 10 July, 2002

One

A lice said: ‘It’s all right.’

‘It’s not. I love you.’

‘We don’t have to make love every time to prove we’re in love. That just makes it screwing. Ugly.’

John Carver turned away, his back to her.

She said: ‘It’s not just this, is it?’

‘This didn’t help.’

‘Do you want to talk about it?’

‘It’s business. Boring.’

‘Business’s never boring.’ Alice Belling had graduated from Harvard Business School with a letter of introduction to a Boston stockbroking firm and the overly confident and quirky idea of turning her degree thesis on corporate avarice eroding American entrepreneurialism into an Op-Ed commentary for the Wall Street Journal. Unable to decide which to try first she wrote off to both at the same time. The Op-Ed piece, which prompted two more articles and two days of top-of-the-page correspondence, was published three days before Alice got an invitation to join the stockbrokers. Her choice was a freelance media career, specializing in analyses and commentary on global finance and corporate stock market movements and trends. In the past year she’d exposed insider dealing and profit inflation in two multinationals just prior to new bond issues.

‘Business and family,’ further qualified Carver.

‘Involving Jane?’

‘It’s complicated.’

‘Turn around and talk to me properly,’ insisted Alice. ‘And hold me. I like it when you hold me.’

He turned back, reaching out for her, and she came easily, comfortably, into his arms. She said: ‘You’re wonderful.’

‘So are you.’

‘You know what I’d like?’

‘What?’

‘To go up to the cabin again soon.’

‘I’ve got the annual conference.’

‘I didn’t mean now. Just soon. It’s been more than two months.’ They’d taken a long time finding the perfect wood-built cabin in the Bearfort Mountains, alongside a small river feeding into one of the West Milford lakes. On the bedroom bureau Alice had a time-release photograph of herself and Carver there – she with her hand in front of her face because she hadn’t been ready when the shutter clicked – and another in the living room. Carver was by himself in that shot, wearing a lumberjack shirt and hiking boots and proudly displaying the fish he’d caught, his first ever, on their initial visit.

‘Let’s get the conference out of the way. One or two other things. We’ll make a long weekend out of it. And you can take the toy.’ One of the rituals involved in the visits to the Catskills was their going in Alice’s carefully preserved Volkswagen, her proudest souvenir of her college days.

‘Thank you. And you can fish again.’

‘I’m sorry that today…’

‘Stop it!’

‘You know what I wish?’

‘I don’t want to go that route, either,’ refused Alice. ‘You can’t, we both know it and I accept it. I’m happy the way things are with us. It’s enough.’ She clamped his leg between both of hers, bringing them tightly together, she slightly on top of him. ‘How was George’s birthday this weekend?’

George W. Northcote was Carver’s father-in-law and founder of the Wall Street accountancy firm that bore his name and represented a forty-year symbol of propriety and rectitude. Carver said: ‘He came over for dinner. Jane gave him some golf clubs which he looked at as if they’d come out of an Egyptian tomb.’

‘How is he?’ The affair between Carver and Alice had developed from their meeting when she had come to Wall Street to interview Northcote for a profile for Forbes magazine. Northcote had a copy framed.

‘Not so good. He even sometimes forgets the end of his sentences and gets mad when anyone tries to help.’

‘He told me he was frightened of retiring. Of atrophying with nothing to do,’ Alice remembered, from their interview.

‘The problem is his still trying to do too much: he’s refusing to let go of a few clients to give himself the reason to come into the city at least two days a week.’

‘His firm, his name?’ she anticipated.

‘No one can ever be as good as he is, in George W. Northcote’s opinion,’ Carver agreed. Holding her like he was, naked, was enough for him today, too.

‘What are the other partners saying?’

‘So far there haven’t been any major mistakes for them to discover but I am going to have to keep a check on what he does to make sure it stays that way: he hasn’t yet realized I’m doing it but I feel like a goddamned spy going behind his back, conspiring against him.’

‘You’re talking the firm: his firm, with his name on it.’

‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about,’ agreed Carver again. ‘A firm he might be endangering!’

‘You’re just putting off confronting him: postponing it.’ They never discussed it, secure as they were with each other, but Alice knew that despite self-confidence verging on arrogance Carver would always be intimidated by the overwhelming personality of George Northcote – the sheer physical presence, even, of someone 6'5' tall and weighing almost 200lbs.

‘You imagine I haven’t worked that out!’

They’d never before seriously argued – fallen out – and Alice, who had never felt intimidated by anyone, was unsettled by the unexpected vehemence in his voice. ‘So when’s it going to happen?’

‘Maybe even today. He’s in town. And there are things he needs to explain.’

‘Then demand an explanation.’

‘I will.’

‘You talked to Jane about it?’

‘Not like this.’

Alice felt a brief warmth of intimacy. ‘Shouldn’t you? She’s his daughter.’

‘She’s been proposed for the charity secretaryship at the country club. He’s agreed to help her with the accounts. That’s what the golf clubs were for, to try to get him to spend more time at the club.’

‘It’ll get in the way of his other hobby.’ One of the accompanying photographs in Alice’s Forbes profile had

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