Read Cometh the Hour: A Novel Online

Authors: Jeffrey Archer

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Sagas

Cometh the Hour: A Novel (6 page)

“I admit I had my doubts,” said Harry, “but I’ve been reassured by the fact that Aaron’s father has agreed to return as president of the new company.”

“Is that a hands-on job?”

“Harold Guinzburg doesn’t do hands-off.”

*   *   *

“Item number one,” declared Emma in her crisp, clear chairman’s voice. “The latest update on the building of our second luxury liner, the MV
.” She glanced toward the group’s new chief executive, Eric Hurst, who was looking down at an already open file.

“The board will be pleased to learn,” he said, “that despite a few unavoidable holdups, which is not unusual in such a major undertaking, we are still well on course to launch the new ship in September. Equally important, we remain within our forecast budget, having anticipated most of the issues that so bedevilled the construction of the

“With one or two notable exceptions,” said Admiral Summers.

“You’re right, admiral,” said Hurst. “I confess that I didn’t foresee the need for a second cocktail bar on the upper deck.”

“Passengers are allowed to drink on deck?” said the admiral.

“I’m afraid so,” said Emma, suppressing a grin. “But it does mean extra money in our coffers.” The admiral didn’t attempt to suppress a snort.

“Although I still need to keep a watchful eye on the timing of the launch,” continued Hurst, “it shouldn’t be too long before we can announce the first booking period for the

“I wonder if we’ve bitten off more than we can chew?” chipped in Peter Maynard.

“I think that’s the finance director’s department, not mine,” said Hurst.

“It most certainly is,” said Michael Carrick, coming in on cue. “The company’s overall position,” he said, looking down at his pocket calculator, which the admiral had already dismissed as a newfangled machine, “is that our turnover is three percent up on this time last year, and that’s despite a substantial loan from Barclays to make sure that we don’t miss any payments during the building phase.”

“How substantial?” demanded Maynard.

“Two million,” said Carrick, not needing to check the figure.

“Can we afford to service such a large overdraft?”

“Yes, Mr. Maynard, but only because our cash flow is also up on last year, along with increased bookings on the
. It seems the current generation of seventy-year-olds are refusing to die, and have rather taken to the idea of an annual cruise. So much so that we have recently introduced a loyalty program for customers who’ve taken a holiday with us on more than three occasions.”

“And what does membership entitle them to?” asked Maurice Brasher, Barclays’ representative on the board.

“Twenty percent off the price of any voyage as long as it’s booked more than a year in advance. It encourages our regulars to look upon the
as their second home.”

“What if they die before the year is up?” asked Maynard.

“They get every penny back,” said Emma. “Barrington’s is in the luxury liner business, Mr. Maynard, we’re not undertakers.”

“But can we still make a profit,” pressed Brasher, “if we give so many of our customers a twenty percent discount?”

“Yes,” said Carrick, “there’s still a further ten percent leeway, and don’t forget, once they’re on board, they spend money in our shops and bars, as well as the twenty-four-hour casino.”

“Something else I don’t approve of,” muttered the admiral.

“What’s our current occupancy rate?” asked Maynard.

“Eighty-one percent over the past twelve months, often a hundred percent on the upper decks, which is why we’re building more staterooms on the

“And what’s breakeven?”

“Sixty-eight percent,” said Carrick.

“Very satisfactory,” said Brasher.

“While I agree with you, Mr. Brasher, we can’t afford to relax,” said Emma. “Union-Castle are planning to convert the
Reina del Mar
into a luxury liner, and Cunard and P&O have both recently begun construction on ships that will carry over two thousand passengers.”

There followed a long silence, while members of the board tried to take this information in.

“Is New York still our most lucrative run?” asked Maynard, who hadn’t appeared particularly interested in the other directors’ questions.

“Yes,” said Hurst, “but the Baltic cruise is also proving popular—Southampton to Leningrad, taking in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki.”

“But now we’re launching a second ship and, considering how many other liners are already on the high seas,” continued Maynard, “do you anticipate any staffing problems?”

Emma was puzzled by the number of questions Maynard was asking. She was beginning to suspect him of having his own agenda.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Captain Turnbull, who hadn’t spoken until then. “Barrington’s is a popular line to work for, especially with the Filipinos. They remain on board for eleven months, never leaving the ship and rarely spending a thing.”

“What about the twelfth month?” asked Sebastian.

“That’s when they go home and hand over their hard-earned cash to their wives and families. Then they report back for duty twenty-eight days later.”

“Poor blighters,” said Brasher.

“In truth, Mr. Brasher,” said Turnbull, “the Filipinos are the happiest members of my crew. They tell me they’d far rather be with the Barrington line than spending twelve months out of work in Manila.”

“What about the officers? Any problems there, captain?”

“At least six qualified men apply for every available job, admiral.”

“Any women?” asked Emma.

“Yes, we now have our first woman on the bridge,” said Turnbull. “Clare Thompson. She’s the first mate, and proving damned effective.”

“What has the world come to?” said the admiral. “Let’s hope I don’t live to see a woman prime minister.”

“Let’s hope you do,” said the chairman, gently chiding her favorite director, “because the world has moved on, and perhaps we should too.” Emma looked at her watch. “Any other business?”

The company secretary coughed, a sign that he had something he needed to tell the board.

“Mr. Webster,” said Emma, sitting back, aware that he was not a man to be hurried.

“I feel I should inform the board that Lady Virginia Fenwick has disposed of her seven and a half percent shareholding in the company.”

“But I thought—” began Emma.

“And the shares have been registered at Companies House in the name of the new owner.”

“But I thought—” repeated Emma, looking directly at her son.

“It must have been a private transaction,” said Sebastian. “I can assure you her shares never came up for sale on the open market. If they had, my broker would have picked them up immediately on behalf of Farthings, and Hakim Bishara would have joined the board as the bank’s representative.”

Everybody in the room began to speak at once. They were all asking the same question. “If Bishara didn’t buy the shares, who did?”

The company secretary waited for the board to settle before he answered their collective cry. “Mr. Desmond Mellor.”

There was immediate uproar, which was silenced only by Sebastian’s curt interjection. “I have a feeling Mellor won’t be returning as a member of the board. It would be far too obvious, and wouldn’t suit his purpose.” Emma looked relieved. “No, I think he’ll select someone else to represent him. Someone who’s never sat on the board before.”

Every eye was now fixed on Sebastian. But it was the admiral who asked, “And who do you think that might be?”

“Adrian Sloane.”



limousine was parked outside the Sherry-Netherland. A smartly dressed chauffeur opened the back door as Harry walked out of the hotel. He climbed in and sank into the backseat, ignoring the morning papers stacked neatly on the cocktail bar opposite him. Who drank at that time in the morning, Harry wondered. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.

Harry had told Aaron Guinzburg several times that he didn’t need a stretch limo to take him on the short journey from the hotel to the studio, a yellow cab would have been just fine.

“It’s all part of the service the
program gives its headline guests.”

Harry gave in, although he knew Emma would not have approved. “An extravagant waste of the company’s money,” as NBC would have discovered, if Emma had been its chairman.

Harry recalled the first time he’d appeared on an American breakfast radio show, more than twenty years before, when he had been promoting his debut William Warwick novel. It had been a fiasco. His already brief spot was cut short when the previous two guests, Mel Blanc and Clark Gable, both overran their allotted time, and when it was finally his turn in front of the microphone, Harry had forgotten to mention the title of his book, and it quickly became clear that his host, Matt Jacobs, hadn’t read it. Two decades later, and he accepted that was par for the course.

Harry was determined not to suffer the same fate with
Uncle Joe,
which the
New York Times
had already described as the most anticipated book of the season. All three morning shows had offered him their highest rated spot, at 7:24 a.m. Six minutes didn’t sound a long time, but in television terms, only ex-presidents and Oscar winners could take it for granted. As Aaron pointed out, “Just think how much we’d have to pay for a six-minute peak-time advertisement.”

The limo came to a halt outside the glass-fronted studio on Columbus Avenue. A smartly dressed young woman was standing on the sidewalk waiting for him.

“Good morning, Harry,” she said. “My name is Anne and I’m your special assistant. I’ll take you straight through to makeup.”

“Thank you,” said Harry, who still hadn’t got used to people he’d never met calling him by his Christian name.

“As you know, you’re on at 7:24 for six minutes, and your interviewer will be Matt Jacobs.”

Harry groaned. Would he have read the book this time? “Great,” he said.

Harry hated makeup. He’d showered and shaved only an hour before, but it was a ritual he knew he couldn’t refuse, despite insisting, “As little as possible, please.” After a liberal amount of cream was applied to his cheeks, and powder dabbed on his forehead and chin, the makeup girl asked, “Shall I remove those stray gray hairs?”

“Certainly not!” said Harry. She looked disappointed, and satisfied herself with trimming his eyebrows.

Once he’d escaped, Anne escorted him through to the green room, where he sat quietly in a corner while a B-movie star, whose name he didn’t catch, was telling an attentive audience what it was like to share a scene with Paul Newman. At 7:20, the door swung open and Anne reappeared to carry out her most important function of the day. “Time to take you through to the studio, Harry.”

Harry jumped up and followed her down a long corridor. He was far too nervous to speak, which she was clearly accustomed to. She stopped outside a closed door on which a notice declared: DO NOT ENTER WHEN RED LIGHT IS ON. When the light turned green, she heaved open the heavy door and led him into a studio the size of an aircraft hangar, crammed with arc lights and cameras, with technicians and floor staff running in every direction during the ad break. Harry smiled at the studio audience, who from the blank expressions on their faces clearly didn’t have a clue who he was. He turned his attention to the host, Matt Jacobs, who was seated on a sofa looking like a spider waiting for a passing fly. A studio assistant handed him a copy of
Uncle Joe
while a second powdered his nose. Jacobs glanced at the cover before turning to the back flap to check the author’s biography. He finally turned to the front flap and read the synopsis of the book. This time Harry was prepared. While he waited to be taken to his place, he studied his inquisitor carefully. Jacobs didn’t seem to have aged in the past twenty years, although Harry suspected the makeup girl had been allowed to use her considerable skills to defy the passage of time. Or had he succumbed to a facelift?

The studio manager invited Harry to join Jacobs on the sofa. He was graced with a “Good morning, Mr. Clifton,” but then his host became distracted by a note yet another assistant placed in front of him.

“Sixty seconds to transmission,” said a voice from somewhere beyond the arc lights.

“Where will it be?” asked Jacobs.

“The page will come up on camera two,” said the floor manager.

“Thirty seconds.”

This was the moment when Harry always wanted to get up and leave the studio.
Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe
, he repeated under his breath. Don’t forget to keep mentioning the title of the book, Aaron had reminded him, because it’s not your name on the cover.

“Ten seconds.”

Harry took a sip of water as a hand appeared in front of his face, displaying five splayed fingers.

“Five, four…”

Jacobs dropped his notes on the floor.

“Three, two…”

And looked straight into the camera.

“One.” The hand disappeared.

“Welcome back,” said Jacobs, reading directly from the teleprompter. “My next guest is the crime novelist Harry Clifton, but today we’re not discussing one of his works, but a book he smuggled out of the Soviet Union.” Jacobs held up his copy of
Uncle Joe,
which filled the whole screen.

Good start,
thought Harry.

“But let me make it clear,” continued Jacobs, “that it was not the book itself that Mr. Clifton smuggled out, just the words. He says that while he was locked up in a Russian prison cell with Anatoly Babakov,
Uncle Joe
’s author, he learned the entire manuscript by heart in four days, and after he had been released he wrote it out word for word. Some people might find this hard to believe,” said Jacobs, before turning to face Harry for the first time, and from the incredulous look on his face, he was clearly one of them.

“Let me try and understand what you’re suggesting, Mr. Clifton. You shared a cell with the distinguished author Anatoly Babakov, a man you’d never met before.”

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