by Michael E. Lloyd
Table of Contents
Part 1 and Part 3
appear in this issue.
Chapter 8: Columbia, South Carolina
part 2 of 4
Just before nine-thirty the following morning, from the public call booth near his hotel, Salvatore again phoned Forretan Exploration. This time, after giving the receptionist his temporary name, he was put straight through to the desk of Norman Crofton, Public Relations Officer (“Always was, always will be.”).
‘Is that really Andreas Onnesen??’
Salvatore did his best to mimic Marie-Anne’s accent. ‘Yes, Norman, it’s me.’
‘Ya kidding! Thought ya left CK months ago.’
‘I did. But they dragged me back in. Something’s come up ...’
‘Yeah? Tell me more. But why ya calling me Norman all of a sudden?’
Salvatore swallowed hard, thought harder, and remembered just in time.
‘Ah, I’m sorry Norm ... I’m trying to be too polite. It is our first spoken conversation, isn’t it, after all those private e-mails! Blame it on Danish formality ...’
‘That’s better, Andy! Now, whad’ya got for me?’
‘OK. Listen carefully, Norm. Carlensen-Klaus paid big money to get me back on their payroll — because they’ve drawn some stunning new conclusions from the data on those gold ores you sent us two years ago.’
‘But y’all mailed them back with a “low potential” rating. We dropped all work on that project ...’
‘That’s right. But there’s a new low-cost metals extraction technique now being piloted by a little-known Scandinavian exploration company — very discreetly, and very successfully, it seems. CKGS turns out to be in on that secret. So, recently, they’ve been running some really smart “information mining” software against lots of stored data from hundred of previous projects — including all of yours. And without needing to re-analyse any of the samples themselves, they’re finding lucrative possibilities for exploiting many mineral deposits that were not previously considered commercially viable ...’
‘Sounds good, Andy! So what’s the bottom line for us?’
‘I can’t say any more on the phone, Norm. But here’s the good news ... I’ve come over to Columbia specially to tell you all about it! In fact, I’m only a few blocks away, right now. Can we meet up outside your office very soon, and go for a little stroll ...?’
‘That’s incredible! Ya came all this way to let me in on this? Must be big! Sure — it’ll be good to meet ya at last. Better be worthwhile, though!’
‘It will be, Norm. It will be. But can you please keep this completely to yourself, until we’ve discussed it properly? You know that makes sense ...’
‘Cloak ‘n dagger stuff, eh, Andy? Haven’t been there for a while! OK, it’s a deal. Seeya in fifteen minutes?’
‘Can we make it thirty, Norm? Something to pick up on my way over ...’
‘Fine. Hold on — whad’ya wearing?’
‘A red short-sleeve shirt. And you?’
‘White shirt, blue tie — always have, always will ...’
‘See you soon, Norm.’
Lucia had discreetly listened in on this whole transaction, as planned, and she and the Chief felt very content with Salvatore’s performance and progress so far.
So she now pursued him unseen as he stepped out east along Gervais Street, crossed Lincoln and Park, and arrived at Assembly. Here he dived into the shopping centre and bought himself a small FM radio. Back outside, he tuned in the most striking local music station he could find, which turned out to be WXBT: “#1 for HIP HOP and R&B”. Satisfied with this, he switched off the radio and slipped it into his jacket pocket.
Then he headed up Assembly Street towards Finlay Park and the Forretan HQ.
* * *
Right on time, Norman Crofton emerged white and blue from his office building, strode smartly down the front drive, and shook the hand of the red shirt waiting politely for him by the sidewalk wall.
‘Good to meet ya, Andy,’ he repeated quite mechanically, but then added, rather more purposefully and quietly, ‘I suggest we take our stroll in the park here, and find somewhere nice and private before we say any more.’
Salvatore happily murmured his assent, and held his own counsel.
As they set off, a slim, dark-skinned young woman with big black-brown curls, wearing a simple strappy knee-length dress, walked past in the other direction and smiled a warm hello to Crofton.
‘Morning, Maelene,’ he beamed in return, but he did not slow his pace.
Moments later, Salvatore glanced round quickly for a second view of this very good-looking girl. But she had gone from sight: obviously into the entrance grounds of the Forretan building. And as he turned back, he was keenly aware that Crofton had spotted this patent interest in his young business colleague.
They reached Finlay Park after just one block, continued to walk in silence, then spotted an empty bench well away from any path. Nobody would come within ten yards of them. They sat down, and Norman at last felt able to turn and face his unexpected messenger with a very expectant look.
But instead of finally spilling the beans, Salvatore casually pulled out his radio. ‘A bit of music to give us even more privacy, OK?’
Without waiting for any agreement, he switched it on. As anticipated, the particular sounds of WXBT-FM did not appear to be to the Columbian’s personal taste.
‘Oh, don’t you like modern R&B, Norm?’
‘No, Andy, I don’t. I prefer Carolina Shag Dance music ...’
Salvatore at once switched off his radio. ‘I’ve never heard of that! What does it sound like?’
Crofton was flattered by this obvious interest in his favourite pastime. He at once began to hum a line or two from a famous seventies’ hit song by Chairmen Of The Board. On cue, Lucia miraculously emerged from behind the adjacent bushes, sidled up to him smiling divinely and asked, straight to his face, ‘Would you like to dance?’
Norman was both very confused and simply unable to resist, and he stood up at once with new and different expectations. But before he could attempt to take Lucia’s hands in his, they embraced instead his still-humming head. And with nobody apparently looking on, she felt free to vanish as quickly as she had appeared ...
Good morning, sir.
‘Huh? Where’d she go?’
Sit down again, please, Mr Crofton. That’s better. Forget about the girl. And perhaps you could stop smiling quite so broadly. Just close your eyes and pretend to be taking a little nap.
Good. Now, you may call me the “Chief”. May I call you Norman?
‘Look, whoever ya are, just call me Norm, right? Everyone always has, always will.’
Very well, Norm. Now, I need to clear up a few things for you straight away.
We unfortunately bring you no better news on your low-potential gold ores. And the gentleman seated beside you is not, in fact, Mr Onnesen. We have no knowledge of his whereabouts. From one geologist to another, I cannot resist admitting that we are sans Andreas, and your misinformation about him was all my fault.
‘Very funny, Chief. And clear as silt.’
Up on the Mater, a gently raised eyebrow from Lucia the Handler told the Chief that once again she wasn’t playing this as well as she might. In fact the eyebrow was saying something closer to ‘why don’t you cut out the jokes, concentrate on what does and doesn’t annoy this man, take a bit more control, and just get on with it?’
The Chief nodded her silent thanks. Yes, engaging successfully with no-nonsense Crofton was going to be even tougher than the others. Surveying was easy compared with this human contact business. Quo was so much better at that ...
Things will improve, Norm. You will be pleased to hear that your new friend is a well-informed geologist himself. His name is Salvatore Pirone, and you will get to know him much better in the coming hours and days ...
‘Still ain’t a whole lot clearer, Chief. But I can see there ain’t no point in arguing. And this guy — “Salvatory”, ya say? — well, he seems OK ... but listen, I can’t call him “Salvatory”. What a mouthful! Sounds like “lavatory”, too. Nah, I’ll call him Sal. We’ll take the risk!’
As you wish, Norm. Now, to continue — I encourage you to welcome Sal into your world with open arms, and offer him the chance to exploit the facilities of Forretan Exploration to the full, while he is here in Columbia. You know the sort of thing: technical library, the Internet, access to experts, leisure opportunities, and so on ...
‘Well, he can certainly use the office libraries and the net, Chief, and he can talk to anyone he likes, within reason — I’ll see to that. We don’t have much of a sports or social club. But he’s in luck ... we do have a li’l staff party every other Friday, and tonight we’re all going for a Shag Dance over at the Zoo. Sal’d be welcome to join us — I might even be able to do something about his taste in music!’
That all sounds fine, Norm. And I’m certain he will be delighted to accept your kind evening invitation.
Now — let us change the subject, and get down to some real business.
The Chief Surveyor moved Norman into full transferral, and the Handler crossed her fingers.
Salvatore continued to sit absent-mindedly on the bench for the next half-hour, waiting and watching for girls going by. Not many did, and none of those actually paid him any attention.
* * *
Well, Norm, we now feel we know you very much better. And I can see that you and your colleagues have not exactly been telling the whole truth in your corporate press releases and other public statements, over many, many years. Do you have any comment on that, to begin with?
‘It’s the way of the world, Chief. Ya can’t go giving away all the company secrets. Specially when there’s big interest in a promising find and lots of competition to buy the rights ...’
I see. Well, it is only as we expected. Sadly, a very high level of Inversion. Leaving so many trusting people so under-informed ...
‘Well, I’m glad to see ya got the right message here! We may not always give the full picture about things — ya have to keep some cards up ya sleeve, so the ball can go on rolling in the years to come, specially the lean ones — but we never explicitly lie, or exaggerate the facts about our findings. That’d mean commercial suicide waiting round every corner!
‘No — it’s just that sometimes our announcements refer to only one part of the area we’ve actually surveyed. We don’t always reveal the full extent of the deposits we’ve discovered, and we initially only sell off the rights to that smaller parcel of land. It’s called putting something in the “top drawer”. We can proudly announce further “discoveries” over the months and years to come ...’
I understand. Well, that may be good enough for your willing and impatient purchasers, Norm, but it will not suffice for us. We require to be far better informed — and in very specific areas. The subject of lutetium deposits in South Carolina and eastern California is of particular interest to us, and we are also very concerned, at this stage, to establish the fuller truth on a number of other important minerals and metals.
‘Look, Chief, I can’t know or memorise everything we do here — everything stored in our databases, in our labs, in our files, in other people’s heads! In fact, in my position, I try not to know too much about some of it, if ya take my point ...’
Of course we do. Please be calm. This is, again, just as we have come to expect. Which is why we are going to allow you plenty of time to conduct your research for us. You have the rest of today to fit some initial investigations into your existing work schedule. And tomorrow, happily, is Saturday: so that should give you more freedom than usual to roam around the building throughout the morning.
‘I don’t know how much I’ll be able to achieve in a few hours.’
Start as early as you can tomorrow, Norm, and simply do your best. We’ll take — wait a moment, please, I’m searching for the best expression ... we have not been here very long — ah, yes, we’ll take a “rain-check” at noon, to see how things are going.
‘Fair enough. Y’all are the bosses today, it seems ...’
Indeed we are, Norm. So, here is your initial mission.
You will proceed to investigate all appropriate Forretan information resources in two particular areas. You will take great pains, throughout, to avoid alerting anyone to what you are doing! And you will find yourself newly able to memorise all that you learn with remarkable ease ...
Firstly, you will build the fullest picture you can on the especially rich lutetium-bearing mineral group which we are presently referring to as “Gerontite”. You will establish where such ores are currently being extracted, not just in the USA but world-wide, and you will identify the degree of richness of each of those deposits.
Separately, you will discover the best possible truths on your Earth’s overall reserves of rhodium, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, iridium, silver, gold, zinc, and lead. We have seen large numbers of public statements on this subject and, as in your own information releases, Norm, we detect significant differences and omissions. Our aim therefore is to understand, from the better and fuller information held more closely within your industry, which commodities really are the scarcest on Earth, or at the most urgent risk of depletion or near-exhaustion, and also which of them are still in apparently abundant supply.
Lucia will meet you here again at noon tomorrow, to receive all this information.
And I hope you and Salvatore — excuse me, “Sal” — will both enjoy the coming evening’s revels.
Crofton stood up and set a rapid and purposeful course for his office, with Salvatore struggling to keep up and Lucia breezing along, unseen, to make sure his real cover story went down successfully.
‘So, why d’ya choose to visit Columbia, Sal?’
‘Well, the truth is, I really fancied a couple of months’ break from work, and I can afford to take it unpaid. So I’m here for a long vacation. I’ve never been to the States before. But I am very interested in Columbia — your Innovista scheme sounds wonderful, from everything I’ve heard, and I came here specifically to find out more about it, and to see if I can bring any of its ideas back to our plans for saving Venice ...’
‘Sounds good. I wish y’all the best of luck with that problem!’
‘Thank you. Of course, Forretan is one of the city’s finest firms, and I’m also hoping to learn a great deal from my association with you. And by the way ... my name is actually Salvatore.’
‘Gotcha. Well, ya can use the library and the Internet while ya here. And ask us questions if ya want to. We’ll answer ‘em if we can!’
‘Thank you, Norman.’
‘It’s Norm. And ya wanna join us all for a dance at the Zoo tonight?’
This was the first Salvatore had heard of the company outing. It sounded OK — he loved zoos, and though he wasn’t one for dancing, if they were “all” going, maybe that Maelene woman would be there ...
‘Thank you, Norm. Yes, I’d enjoy that.’
‘Fine. Starts at seven-thirty. Now, I suddenly gotta lot to do. Wanna come in and start some research, Sal, or ya gonna go sightseeing first?’
Salvatore decided to concede defeat on the first name game. ‘Hmm ... it’s Friday — I think I’ll relax for the rest of the week, and maybe do some work on Monday, if that’s OK?’
‘Sure. Your call. Seeya tonight, then. At the Reptile House. Have a nice day.’
Norman turned and marched on up the Forretan front drive, and Salvatore, short of any other ideas, made his way back to his hotel. He flopped onto his bed, grabbed the TV remote control, channel-hopped aimlessly for twenty minutes, then passed the next couple of hours on a diet of room-service pizza, mini-bar beers, cartoons, sleep and waiting for Lucia.
* * *
Using his deep PR skills — and the happy coincidence of a concurrent visit from some important west coast clients — to disguise his true goals, Crofton spent the rest of the morning talking with several different specialists: both those who had been indirectly involved in the company’s specific lutetium explorations, and others with broader technical experience of Forretan’s many other projects, past and present.
He was obliged to stop after a couple of hours, to meet up again with the visitors for a working lunch which frustratingly could not be hurried. But eventually he was free again, and was able to use much of what he had learned in his morning conversations, in combination with his own wide knowledge, to carry out a number of powerful, high-level enquiries against the corporate database. Next, using their results, he skilfully built himself a thorough plan of the specific files whose detailed contents he would need to study and memorise, in preparation for his second session with the Chief at noon the next day.
Then he had to break off again for a further round of discussions with the visiting clients.
So it was late in the afternoon before he was able to begin that lower-level research in earnest. And then he became increasingly surprised at what he was discovering ...
Copyright © 2006 by Michael E. Lloyd