Authors: Sidney Sheldon
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘The physician will carefully prepare a mixture of crocodile dung, lizard flesh, bat’s blood and camel’s spit…”
—from a papyrus listing 811 prescriptions used by the Egyptians in 1550
Saturday, September 5.
He was seated in the dark, alone, behind the desk of Hajib Kafir, staring unseeingly out of the dusty office window at the timeless minarets of Istanbul. He was a man’ who was at home in a dozen capitals of the world, but Istanbul was one of his favorite cities. Not the tourist Istanbul of Beyoglu Street, or the gaudy Lalezab Bar of the Hilton, but the out-of-the-way places that only the Moslems knew: the
, and the small markets beyond the
and the Telli Baba, the cemetery where only one person was buried, and the people came to pray to him.
His waiting had the patience of a hunter, the quiet stillness of a man in control of his body and his emotions. He was Welsh, with the dark, stormy good looks of his ancestors. He had black hair and a strong face, and quick intelligent eyes that were a deep blue. He was over six feet tall, with the lean muscular body of a man who kept himself in good
physical condition. The office was filled with the odors of Hajib Kafir, his sickly sweet tobacco, his acrid Turkish coffee, his fat, oily body. Rhys Williams was unaware of them. He was thinking about the telephone call he had received from Chamonix an hour earlier.
“…A terrible accident! Believe me, Mr. Williams, we are all devastated. It happened so quickly that there was no chance to save him. Mr. Roffe was killed instantly…”
Sam Roffe, president of Roffe and Sons, the second largest pharmaceutical company in the world, a multibillion-dollar dynasty that girdled the globe. It was impossible to think of Sam Roffe as being dead. He had always been so vital, so full of life and energy, a man on the move, living in airplanes that raced him to company factories and offices all over the world, where he solved problems others could not deal with, created new concepts, pushed everyone to do more, to do better. Even though he had married, and fathered a child, his only real interest had been the business. Sam Roffe had been a brilliant and extraordinary man. Who could replace him? Who was capable of running the enormous empire he had left? Sam Roffe had not chosen an heir apparent. But then, he had not planned to die at fifty-two. He had thought there would be plenty of time.
And now his time had run out.
The lights in the office suddenly flashed on and Rhys Williams looked toward the doorway, momentarily blinded.
“Mr. Williams! I did not know anyone was here.”
It was Sophie, one of the company secretaries, who was assigned to Rhys Williams whenever he
was in Istanbul. She was Turkish, in her middle twenties, with an attractive face and a lithe, sensuous body, rich with promise. She had let Rhys know in subtle, ancient ways that she was available to bring him whatever pleasures he wished, whenever he desired them, but Rhys was not interested.
Now she said, “I returned to finish some letters for Mr. Kafir.” She added softly, “Perhaps there is something I can do for you?”
As she moved closer to the desk, Rhys could sense the musky smell of a wild animal in season.
“Where is Mr. Kafir?”
Sophie shook her head regretfully. “He has left for the day.” She smoothed the front of her dress with the palms of soft, clever hands. “Can I help you in some way?” Her eyes were dark and moist.
“Yes,” Rhys said. “Find him.”
She frowned. “I have no idea where he could—”
“Try the Kervansaray, or the Mermara.” It would probably be the former, where one of Hajib Kafir’s mistresses worked as a belly dancer. Although you never knew with Kafir, Rhys thought. He might even be with his wife.
Sophie was apologetic. “I will try, but I am afraid I—”
“Explain to him that if he’s not here in one hour, he no longer has a job.”
The expression on her face changed. “I will see what I can do, Mr. Williams.” She started toward the door.
“Turn out the lights.”
Somehow, it was easier to sit in the dark with his thoughts. The image of Sam Roffe kept intruding. Mont Blanc should have been an easy climb this
time of the year, early September. Sam had tried the climb before, but storms had kept him from reaching the peak.
“I’ll plant the company flag up there this time,” he had promised Rhys, jokingly.
And then the telephone call a short while ago as Rhys was checking out of the Pera Palace. He could hear the agitated voice on the telephone. “…They were doing a traverse over a glacier…Mr. Roffe lost his footing and his rope broke…He fell into a bottomless crevasse…”
Rhys could visualize Sam’s body smashing against the unforgiving ice, hurtling downward into the crevasse. He forced his mind away from the scene. That was the past. There was the present to worry about now. The members of Sam Roffe’s family had to be notified of his death, and they were scattered in various parts of the world. A press announcement had to be prepared. The news was going t travel through international financial circles like a shock wave. With the company in the midst of a financial crisis, it was vital that the impact of Sam Roffe’s death be minimized as much as possible. That would be Rhys’s job.
Rhys Williams had first met Sam Roffe nine years earlier. Rhys, then twenty-five, had been sales manager for a small drug firm. He was brilliant and innovative, and as the company had expanded, Rhys’s reputation had quickly spread. He was offered a job at Roffe and Sons and when he turned it down, Sam Roffe bought the company Rhys worked for and sent for him. Even now he could recall the overwhelming power of Sam Roffe’s presence at their first meeting.
“You belong here at Roffe and Sons,” Sam Roffe
had informed him. “That’s why I bought that horse-and-buggy outfit you were with.”
Rhys had found himself flattered and irritated at the same time. “Suppose I don’t want to stay?”
Sam Roffe had smiled and said confidently, “You’ll want to stay. You and I have something in common, Rhys. We’re both ambitious. We want to own the world. I’m going to show you how.”
The words were magic, a promised feast for the fierce hunger that burned in the young man, for he knew something that Sam Roffe did not: There was no Rhys Williams. He was a myth that had been created out of desperation and poverty and despair.
He had been born near the coalfields of Gwent and Carmarthen, the red scarred valleys of Wales where layers of sandstone and saucer-shaped beds of limestone and coal puckered the green earth. He grew up in a fabled land where the very names were poetry: Brecon and Pen-y Fan and Penderyn and Glyncorrwg and Maesteg. It was a land of legend, where the coal buried deep in the ground had been created 280 million years before, where the landscape was once covered with so many trees that a squirrel could travel from Brecon Beacons to the sea without ever touching the ground. But the industrial revolution had come along and the beautiful green trees were chopped down by the charcoal burners to feed the insatiable fires of the iron industry.
The young boy grew up with the heroes of another time and another world. Robert Farrer, burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church because he would not take a vow of celibacy and abandon his wife; King Hywel the Good, who
brought the law to Wales in the tenth century; the fierce warrior Brychen who sired twelve sons and twenty-four daughters and savagely put down all attacks on his kingdom. It was a land of glorious histories in which the lad had been raised. But it was not all glory. Rhys’s ancestors were miners, every one of them, and the young boy used to listen to the tales of hell that his father and his uncles recounted. They talked of the terrible times when there was no work, when the rich coalfields of Gwent and Carmarthen had been closed in a bitter fight between the companies and the miners, and the miners were debased by a poverty that eroded ambition and pride, that sapped a man’s spirit and strength and finally made him surrender.
When the mines were open, it was another kind of hell. Most of Rhys’s family had died in the mines. Some had perished in the bowels of the earth, others had coughed their blackened lungs away. Few had lived past the age of thirty.
Rhys used to listen to his father and his aging young uncles discussing the past, the cave-ins and the cripplings and the strikes; talking of the good times and the bad, and to the young boy they seemed the same. All bad. The thought of spending his years in the darkness of the earth appalled Rhys. He knew he had to escape.
He ran away from home when he was twelve. He left the valleys of coal and went to the coast, to Sully Ranny Bay and Lavernock, where the rich tourists flocked, and the young boy fetched and carried and made himself useful, helping ladies down the steep cliffs to the beach, lugging heavy picnic baskets, driving a pony cart at Penarth, and working at the amusement park at Whitmore Bay.
He was only a few hours away from home, but the distance could not be measured. The people here were from another world. Rhys Williams had never imagined such beautiful people or such glorious finery. Each woman looked like a queen to him and the men were all elegant and splendid. This was the world where he belonged, and there was nothing he would not do to make it his.
By the time Rhys Williams was fourteen, he had saved enough money to pay for his passage to London. He spent the first three days simply walking around the huge city, staring at everything, hungrily drinking in the incredible sights and the sounds and the smells.
His first job was as a delivery boy at a draper’s shop. There were two male clerks, superior beings both, and a female clerk, who made the young Welsh boy’s heart sing every time he looked at her. The men treated Rhys as he was meant to be treated, like dirt. He was a curiosity. He dressed peculiarly, had abominable manners and spoke with an incomprehensible accent. They could not even pronounce his name. They called him Rice, and Rye, and Rise. “It’s pronounced Reese,” Rhys kept telling them.
The girl took pity on him. Her name was Gladys Simpkins and she shared a tiny flat in Tooting with three other girls. One day she allowed the young boy to walk her home after work and invited him in for a cup of tea. Young Rhys was overcome with nervousness. He had thought this was going to be his first sexual experience, but when he began to put his arm around Gladys, she stared at him a moment, then laughed. “I’m not giving none of that to you,” she said. “But I’ll give you some advice. If you
want to make somethin’ of yourself, get yourself some proper clothes and a bit of education and learn yourself some manners.” She studied the thin, passionate young face and looked into Rhys’s deep blue eyes, and said softly, “You’re gonna be a bit of all right when you grow up.”
If you want to make somethin’ of yourself…
That was the moment when the fictitious Rhys Williams was born. The real Rhys Williams was an uneducated, ignorant boy with no background, no breeding, no past, no future. But he had imagination, intelligence and a fiery ambition. It was enough. He started with the image of what he wanted to be, who he intended to be. When he looked in his mirror, he did not see the clumsy, grubby little boy with a funny accent; his mirror image was polished and suave and successful. Little by little, Rhys began to match himself to the image in his mind. He attended night school, and he spent his weekends in art galleries. He haunted public libraries and went to the theater, sitting in the gallery, studying the fine clothes of the men seated in the stalls. He scrimped on food, so that once a month he could go to a good restaurant, where he carefully copied the table manners of others. He observed and learned and remembered. He was like a sponge, erasing the past, soaking up the future.
In one short year Rhys had learned enough to realize that Gladys Simpkins, his princess, was a cheap Cockney girl who was already beneath his tastes. He quit the draper’s shop and went to work as a clerk at a chemist’s shop that was part of a large chain. He was almost sixteen now, but he
looked older. He had filled out and was taller. Women were beginning to pay attention to his dark Welsh good looks and his quick, flattering tongue. He was an instant success in the shop. Female customers would wait until Rhys was available to take care of them. He dressed well and spoke correctly, and he knew he had come a long way from Gwent and Carmarthen, but when he looked in the mirror, he was still not satisfied. The journey he intended to make was still ahead of him.
Within two years Rhys Williams was made manager of the shop where he worked. The district manager of the chain said to Rhys, “This is just the beginning, Williams. Work hard and one day you’ll be the superintendent of half a dozen stores.”
Rhys almost laughed aloud. To think that that could be the height of anyone’s ambition! Rhys had never stopped going to school. He was studying business administration and marketing and commercial law. He wanted more. His image in the mirror was at the top of the ladder; Rhys felt he was still at the bottom. His opportunity to move up came when a drug salesman walked in one day, watched Rhys charm several ladies into buying products they had no use for, and said, “You’re wasting your time here, lad. You should be working in a bigger pond.”
“What did you have in mind?” Rhys asked.
“Let me talk to my boss about you.”
Two weeks later Rhys was working as a salesman at the small drug firm. He was one of fifty salesmen, but when Rhys looked in his special mirror, he knew that that was not true. His only competition was himself. He was getting closer to his image now, closer to the fictitious character he was creating. A
man who was intelligent, cultured, sophisticated and charming. What he was trying to do was impossible. Everyone knew that one had to be born with those qualities; they could not be created. But Rhys did it. He became the image he had envisioned.
He traveled around the country, selling the firm’s products, talking and listening. He would return to London full of practical suggestions, and he quickly began to move up the ladder.
Three years after he had joined the company, Rhys was made general sales manager. Under his skillful guidance the company began to expand.
And four years later, Sam Roffe had come into his life. He had recognized the hunger in Rhys.