With his world-weary face tilted down, Nick Price studied the scale model of a proposed shopping-cum-residential complex, a mere stone’s throw away from Brighton’s beachfront. For years the site had been a derelict eyesore; a once proud amusement arcade, no longer in fashion with the town’s holidaymakers. He said nothing for a whole minute, his lean, craggy features showing no emotion as his eyes took in the design. His audience of architects, bankers and engineers, gathered in the plush function room of the Thistle Hotel, showed signs of unease.
It was Nittaya who broke the silence. ‘Come on Daddy, say something for goodness sake.’ No one else would have dared interrupt her father’s thoughts.
‘Well, I’m not too sure about this roof terrace, it’s a bit …’ Nick stopped short as he caught a glance of rebuke from his beloved daughter. Instead, he allowed his face to crack into an ear-to-ear smile. ‘It’s wonderful, Nit. Truly wonderful. You and Somsuk have worked really hard on this haven’t you?’
‘Todd helped us, Daddy. You shouldn’t forget him.’
Nick turned and winked at his old mate, Todd. He knew where the credit really lay. And he also knew he didn’t have to praise his old friend in public. Their relationship went far deeper than that. ‘Yeah, I know that. It’s just that I’m so proud of you. Your first major business venture. I just wish your mother could have been here to see it.’
Nittaya put her arm round her father’s waist. ‘I know, Daddy. I do too.’
Nick brushed aside a stray hair from Nittaya’s face before saying in a commanding voice, ‘Now then, folks. There’s just one small but vital matter to clear up. Are you sure you can build this out for under fifty million?’
‘Forty-seven million, almost to the penny,’ a quantity surveyor replied. ‘We’ve secured fixed price quotes for the build plus all incidentals. Interest and bank fees on top, of course, but that shouldn’t be more than another five million.’
‘And you’ve got a buyer at sixty?’
‘The Bank of Kyoto,’ Todd responded. ‘They’ve already signed a memorandum of understanding. They’ll sign contracts as soon as we can confirm that finance is in place for the construction.’
‘So what are you waiting for?’ Nick retorted.
Todd winked at Nittaya before replying, ‘We just need you to give your final blessing, Nick.’
‘And a big fat cheque too, no doubt?’ Nick grimaced, but inside, deep down inside, his heart warmed. He’d done the mental arithmetic in a split second; two million pounds each for Todd and himself, same for his two kids. A sweet deal, indeed, for little risk and no real effort.
‘It would certainly help, Mr Price.’ The response came from a man in a business suit a few feet away. ‘As you’re the senior partner in this project, we really do need to have your equity stake deposited with our bank to get the ball rolling.’
Nittaya looked with expectation at her father. His heart melted at the sight of her pleading eyes. ‘Well, I suppose it’s too late to pull out now,’ he jested. He handed over a brown envelope to the banker and sighed as though dispensing a cheque for five million pounds was a daily chore. ‘Let’s break out the champagne and open the doors, the press are going to be here any second.’
A mixture of cheers and sighs of relief filled the room. Corks popped, glasses were filled and trays of nibbles were handed around as a large crowd of pompous looking civic dignitaries wandered into the room at the appointed hour.
Never one to enjoy the pomp associated with these occasions, Nick withdrew to one side with Nittaya in tow. Todd would do the honours, pumping hands, making small talk, massaging egos. Todd always did, he was a natural at public relations. It was Todd’s forte, and his reward was for his ego to be massaged as he basked in the spotlight.
It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that Nick watched Todd steer in his direction a large bearded man wearing the chain of office of the Leader of Brighton Borough Council.
‘Martin,’ Todd said as he drew closer, ‘let me introduce you to my old friend, Nick Price.’
The Council Leader grabbed Nick’s hand and shook it for far longer than was socially appropriate. Nick could almost read the Councilor’s thoughts; no doubt the man would dine out on the experience for months to come. He knew he was a local talking point; poor boy made good, generous benefactor, white knight to local charities, or an evil conniving property developer with half the Council in his pocket. The press was divided, as were the people of Brighton.
‘Now then, Martin,’ Todd cut in, ‘you must come and have your photograph taken standing next to the model of our town’s new state-of-the-art shopping complex.’
‘Of course, Todd, but we really should wait for my special guest.’
A frown formed on Nick’s forehead. ‘Special guest?’ he asked. He threw a look of bewilderment in Todd’s direction.
‘Geoffrey Rees Smith, of course,’ the Councilor replied in a cordial manner. ‘Our very own esteemed Member of Parliament. We couldn’t leave him out, now, could we Mr Price?’
‘What?’ Nick retorted. He could feel his cheeks burning.
‘Martin,’ Todd exploded, ‘I don’t believe this! You didn’t tell me you were going to invite him. I thought I made it clear that guests had to be approved in advance.’
‘Come now, Todd,’ the Councilor replied wagging a finger in Todd’s face. ‘We’re talking about a great coup here for both of us. Geoffrey was appointed Home Secretary in last month’s cabinet reshuffle. For goodness sake, we can’t possibly miss out on this opportunity. Think of the publicity we’ll both get.’
Nick threw Todd a doubtful look and was just about to say something impolite when the door burst open to the sound of raucous laughing. He moaned as he watched the tall, broad, imposing frame of the Home Secretary stride into the room, his demeanor as ostentatious as was possible.
‘Bollocks!’ Nick muttered, attracting a recriminating look from his daughter.
‘Bollocks, indeed,’ Todd responded under his breath.
A feeling of foreboding settled on Nick as he watched the arrogant politician proclaim his arrival by greeting everyone in a loud voice. He felt the blood drain from his face as a pain surged through his chest. He grabbed hold of his daughter’s arm moments before he felt his legs wobble.
Nittaya looked at her father in horror. ‘Daddy? Are you all right, Daddy?’
‘Sorry, Nit, I’m just having one of my funny turns.’ He watched in dismay as the Councilor moved in on the politician, mouth wide open in an ingratiating smile, followed close at heels by Todd.
‘Geoffrey, thank you so much for coming,’ the Councilor said with a flamboyant waving of his arms. ‘So good of you to find time, you must be so busy these days.’
‘I am indeed, Martin,’ Rees Smith boomed in response, as if determined to let the whole room know of his importance. ‘Still, anything I can do to promote the town’s image, you know me, I’m always pleased to help.’
The false smile refused to shift from the Councilor’s face. ‘Let me introduce you to the project’s founders.’
‘By all means,’ Rees Smith responded with one of his own insincere smiles.
The Councilor turned to face Todd who seemed to be taking an unusual interest in something on the ground. ‘This is Todd Conners. He’s a long time associate of mine on the Council.’
‘How do you do,’ the Home Secretary said. But as Todd raised his eyes to make contact, Rees Smith’s smile turned sour, his extended hand fell limp to his side.
Todd folded his arms across his chest and responded with a curt greeting. ‘Hello, Geoff.’
‘And over there,’ the Councilor continued unaware of the apparent drama, ‘is Nick Price, the senior partner in this venture. Todd, perhaps you would be kind enough to make the introductions?’
Rees Smith’s eyes turned in Nick’s direction.
Even from thirty feet away in a crowded room, Nittaya had missed nothing. She prodded her father. ‘I think you’re wanted, Daddy. The Councilor Leader’s trying to get your attention.’
If looks could kill, Nick would have been a happy man as he stared daggers at the politician.
‘Come on, Daddy,’ Nittaya said with glee. ‘This should generate some good press coverage.’ She linked arms with her father and set off across the room.
Nick got dragged against his will. He stopped a few feet short of the Home Secretary and fought back the bile rising in his stomach.
Todd coughed, breaking the atmosphere. ‘Geoff, may I present Nittaya.’
The Home Secretary’s attention diverted from Nick’s piercing eyes. His face dropped as he took in Nittaya’s beauty and radiance. ‘My God,’ he muttered, ‘but you’re . . .’
Todd coughed again, much louder. ‘Geoff, Nittaya is Nick’s daughter.’
‘I, um,’ Rees Smith spluttered as he threw a sideways glance in Nick’s direction. ‘Sorry, Nittaya, it’s just that you remind me so much of your mother.’
Nittaya looked astounded. ‘You knew my mother?’
Rees Smith frowned. ‘A lifetime ago. You were just a baby if I remember correctly.’
Nittaya turned and looked inquisitively at her father, but received no reaction. She met Todd’s eyes, and received an affirming nod. ‘So you already know my father then? And Todd too, presumably? How? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. How did my mother know a Home Secretary?’
‘I wasn’t Home Secretary back then. Not even a politician. I’d just graduated, had some time free. I went travelling around the world, seeking adventure. I stayed in Bangkok for a while and went to your father’s bar a few times.’
Nittaya looked with scorn at both Todd and her father. ‘Nobody mentioned this to me.’
‘No,’ Rees Smith responded quietly. ‘I’m sure there was no reason to. You know the old saying, about ships passing in the night.’
Nick had been standing frozen rigid to the spot, a far-away look in his eye. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. He could find no words to say.
Nittaya squeezed her father’s hand as though urging him to snap out of his reverie. Smiling at the Home Secretary, she said sweetly, ‘It’s been very kind of you to attend today, sir. Can I persuade you to have an official photograph taken standing next to the model of our new complex over there?’
‘Yes, of course,’ Rees Smith replied with a genuine smile. ‘I’d be delighted.’
Nick was dragged further across the room. As he was shuffled into position next to the Home Secretary, a flashlight temporarily blinded him. He cursed inwardly. Eighteen years had been a long time. Too long.