Omelas

Masterson Enterprises is a company run on the egalitarian principles of noble philanthropist Louis Masterson, but what if all his good works could be undone by one accusation, and what if that accusation were true? What is the price of paradise?

A large events room, decorated expensively but tastefully, large round tables packed with people wearing evening dress. At the front, a stage, a projected screen behind the podium, a man in a bow tie reading from cards. Wine was flowing freely as handsome wait-staff flowed around the crowded tables, removing the last of the plates and refilling glasses before their owners even noticed they were empty. Louis Masterson sat somewhere near the back, fingers folded across a stomach now full to bursting with the rich, superbly prepared food they had all just consumed. He was not drinking – he was not teetotal, but he preferred to stay in control, especially when he was about to become the centre of attention – but he was affected by the warm glow that emanated from the room, from the buzz of excitement in the air.

“And now, to present tonight’s most important award,” the man on the stage said, “please welcome the Vice-President of Public Relations for Masterson Enterprises, Daniel Wellingbrook!” There was applause, and Daniel made his way to the stage. He looked younger than he was, especially standing up there on his own. A slight figure, but with a will of iron. He had to be, in his job.

Daniel smiled. It was a winning smile, a warm smile, and he drummed his hands lightly against the podium then, suddenly held his arms out. “What is there to say?” Everyone laughed. “What is there to say,” he went on, “that hasn’t been said before by others more eloquent than myself? What is there to say that the recipient of this,” and here he placed a hand on the golden trophy that sat on one corner of the podium, “the Darlington Man of the Year award, that he hasn’t said so many times about himself?” He waited for the laughter to die down again. “Each year, this most prestigious accolade is given to an individual who has done more in a year to promote the pursuit of everything that we call good in the world than perhaps anyone else. It has been given to scientists, philanthropists, politicians, community organisers and religious leaders. It is given only to men who have been selfless in their pursuit of a better world, who have tirelessly raised money and awareness for noble causes, who have improved standards of living for the least-fortunate in society, who have championed education, healthcare and justice wherever they have gone. When I was asked to present this award, my first reaction was confusion – they have met my boss, right?” Louis joined in heartily with the laughter at his expense. “Louis Masterson would never be comfortable in the company of the kind of men who have won this award in the past. But I had no hesitation in saying yes, and concurring vociferously with the panel’s choice this year. Louis Masterson, the CEO, the founder, of Masterson Enterprises, has done more in this country and abroad than anyone I can think of to promote all of the things I just mentioned. He has ploughed millions – hundreds of millions – of corporate profits into programmes for delivering affordable vaccines for Third World nations, into community projects here in Britain, into sports and housing, into schools. He has personally funded a production company dedicating to championing forgotten causes. We have all seen the output of Masterson Vision and Sound, the countless documentaries and independent films, themselves the recipients of dozens of industry awards. And all this has not come at the expense of his workforce and their families. In a recent survey, Masterson Enterprises was listed as one of the finest organisations to be employed by – not just in this country, but in the world. And I can personally attest to that.” Daniel smiled and looked down at his cards. He seemed at a loss for a moment. “And, speaking personally, Louis Masterson, a man I have come to think of as more than a boss, has been a kind of second father to me since welcoming me into his company around twelve years ago. I came in wanting to change the world and I told him so. And he said to me then, giving me a big wide smile, patting me on the shoulder, he said, ‘stick with me, son, and you’ll do just that’. He wasn’t wrong. I like to think I’ve played some small part in being part of a corporation that has brought order from chaos, that has played a huge part in dragging this country out of recession, that has always, always, always, put altruism ahead of profits, that has seen, rightly, that the way to success – for all mankind – is with inclusion, with outreach, with, above all, sharing. I can think of no better recipient for this long-overdue award, than the man behind the myth: my friend and mentor, Louis Masterson!”

The applause was thunderous. Louis smiled a little awkwardly in the glare of the spotlight, then stood up and waved to the crowd. He made his way through the tables, exchanging handshakes and receiving warm slaps on the back as he went, then mounted the stage himself. He was quite old now, but still spry and handsome. He took Daniel in a warm embrace, shook his hand and then stepped up to the podium himself. It took several minutes for the clapping to die down. He picked up the Darlington Award. “Goodness,” he said, and everyone laughed loudly again. “This is quite an honour,” he said. His voice was not loud, but he had a precise, even delivery that was unmistakable and silenced the room. “An honour indeed. One I think I’m not worthy of at all, I must say. Daniel was so kind with his words just now, and I must disappoint you all by revealing that he is a notorious bullshitter!” Waves of laughter now, with Daniel laughing loudest just to his side and behind. “I wouldn’t have hired him otherwise. No, this is too, too kind. You are all too kind. And kindness…kindness has always been what it’s about. Someone once said to me, there’s nothing else to life, nothing else that matters: ‘you gotta be kind.’ It’s the main thing: perhaps the only thing. It’s how I’ve tried to live. I always did what I thought was best, nothing more. What was best, over fifty years ago, was investing in the brand new technology of computers. We had no idea what would become of it! It just seemed like a neat toy to me! It still does…but it worked out. I wanted to change the world, just like Daniel, and I realised after decades of hard work that I finally had the means to do it. I invested, I built a company, and now you all give me credit for the wonderful things we’ve done but, let me tell you, Masterson Enterprises is about more than one man. It is so much more. It is all the people on the payroll, all the men and women who do the work, and all the customers and beneficiaries of our work. These are the people who matter, not the man in the big office. I come into work, I sign papers, I approve plans, I teleconference with someone or other, and I go home. I’m not on the ground. I don’t build the circuit boards, I don’t sell the gizmos, I don’t dig the irrigation ditches in Kenya, I don’t educate the children in our inner-city academies, I don’t give the vaccines. All I did was move the money around. So, this award, this prestigious, flattering award, is not really for me. It is for everyone at Masterson Enterprises and beyond who has shared our vision of a better world. It is Daniel and his wife Sharon and their daughters May and Alberta. It is Gordon, William and Vanessa on the board of directors with me. It is Helen who cleans my office. It is Julio, one of the factory foremen. It is Ken, my driver. It is Julie in the call centre and Kassim in the R&D lab and all their families. It is a boy called Gary from Birmingham who was himself the recipient of one of our awards last week. It is the Kuar family in rural India whose children have a real chance to fulfil their potential now they have access to education and healthcare. Masterson Enterprises is a work of collaboration: all I did was give it its name. I didn’t built this: they built this. And this award is for them. Thank you.”

Over a hundred people rose to their feet as one and began applauding wildly. The noise was deafening, and almost staggered Louis. He bobbed his head gracefully, tried to hide his embarrassment, held up his award slightly and was finally allowed to leave the stage, the sound of clapping still ringing in his ears. “Lovely speech, Louis,” Daniel told him as he led him backstage.

“It’s all such nonsense, this,” Louis told him.

“You think so?”

“Egocentric mutual masturbation!”

Daniel laughed. “Well, you wear it well.”

“I just want to get back to work. There are things to do, and I am still a mortal, despite what they all seem to think in there!”

“Work can wait. We have to do some PR.”

“Oh no…”

“This will be covered in all the newspapers.”

“I can think of nothing worse than being bandied around in those rags!”

“Think of the exposure for our causes.”

“I know, I know. You keep telling me this.”

“And you never listen. Now, come on, let’s have some pictures.” Photographers were arrayed in a small roped-off area backstage. Louis and Daniel posed together, smiling magnanimously as the flashes went off. “Lift up the award,” Daniel told him without let his grin drop.

“It’s embarrassing.”

“Only for you. Don’t be so selfish.”

“I’ll remind you of this when you get one of these bloody things,” Louis said through gritted teeth.

It was some hours later when Ken dropped Louis back at his building. He had a place in the country – several places in several countries in fact – but rarely used them. Most of the time he was based in his London penthouse and it was where he felt most at home. He nodded to the doorman, ineffectually concealing the ridiculous award beneath his coat and rode the lift to the top floor alone. His apartment was large but not as opulent as some might have thought. He despised vulgar displays of wealth, but he did believe in having nice things. It was modern, tasteful, and quite personal. He lived alone. It had always been that way, for him. It was the one issue into which he would never be drawn in interviews. The lights came on automatically as he entered the large open-plan living area and, cringing at his own vanity, placed the Darlington Award on the bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling near the centre where it was quite visible. Then he turned on some Bach and went to the kitchen to pour himself a small glass of sherry. All in all, it had been a satisfactory evening.

*

Louis did not believe in breakfast on anything but the smallest scales. He ate a poached egg on toast with the barest drizzle of hollandaise sauce with Radio 4 playing in the background. He had a housekeeper – a bubbly Bulgarian girl named Svetlana – but he insisted she not start until 9, when he was long gone so she wouldn’t be picking up after him. He made his own meals. He was just finishing up when there was a buzz from the intercom. Frowning slightly – it wasn’t even seven o’clock yet – he walked over to the wall and pressed the button. “Yes?”

“Mr Masterson?”

“Of course. Can I help you?”

“I’m Detective Inspector Lawrence. I wondered if you’d be able to answer a few questions for us?”

“Oh goodness! Yes, certainly.” He pressed the button to unlock the door. “There you go. Come right up.”

He knew the officer was telling the truth. Anyone suspicious wouldn’t have gotten past Trevor, the hulking doorman. In the minutes before his guest arrived, Louis busied himself with tidying up his breakfast, putting the plate in the dishwasher and then turned off the radio. There was a polite knock at the door and he headed down the corridor to answer it. DI Lawrence had another police officer with him, whom he introduced as Constable Peters. They were in plain clothes, for which Louis was quite grateful. He ushered them through to the dining area and asked them to sit. “What is it I can help you with?” he said as he sat down opposite them.

Lawrence looked a little reluctant. “Mr Masterson, we are pursuing an investigation involving yourself. At this stage, everything is very preliminary, but we’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“An investigation? That sounds unpleasant.” His mind worked double-time, trying to think of what it might be about. He knew his finances were in good order. Masterson Enterprises paid all its taxes and then some, and he believed their practices were above reproach. “What sort of investigation?” he pressed.

“We’ll come to that. Constable?”

Constable Peters brought out a file from her bag. “I want to stress, Mr Masterson, that so far no criminal charges have been filed.”

“Well that’s good to know. I suppose you won’t tell me who amongst my staff has supposed to have done whatever it is?”

The two police officers exchange a look. “Mr Masterson,” Lawrence said, “you’re the one under investigation.”

“Could you look at this photo please?” Peters asked.

Feeling a dull weight in the pit of his stomach, Louis took the photograph from the Constable. It was of a young woman – perhaps in her twenties – blonde and attractive, but with a bleak, defeated look in her eyes. “What do you want me to say?” he asked.

“Do you recognise her?”

“Not at all. Who is she?”

“What about this one?”

A girl, much younger, but similarly blonde. This was taken on holiday maybe, and she was smiling and laughing. There was something about the nose…yes, it was the same girl. But as a child. “What about her?” he asked carefully.

“You don’t recognise her?”

“Should I?”

“She’s made an accusation against you, Mr Masterson,” Lawrence explained, “an accusation of a very serious nature.”

“What department are you officers from?” Louis asked, fearing that he knew the answer.

“We’re from the Child Abuse Investigation Unit,” Peters answered. “Could you tell us where you were on the night of 12th September 1999?”

“I think I’d better call my solicitor before I answer that question,” Louis replied calmly.

The next hour and a half was spent in a kind of daze. It was all very civil, all very polite, but no one ever has a good reason to be in a police station. Gerard Samson-Brown, his solicitor of many years, more used to dealing with patent disputes than things of this nature, shook Louis’s hand firmly as he met him outside the interview room. Everything had been kept very hush-hush – the corridor had been closed off so no member of the public might accidentally wander down and see him sitting there forlornly in a moulded plastic seat. The car that brought him there had blacked windows, and he had been escorted in through the back. No one wanted this to turn into a national scandal. “We’ll get this ironed out in no time,” Gerard told him as they were directed into the interview room and took their seats. “Who do you think might be behind it?”

“I have no idea,” Louis said with a helpless shrug, “I just can’t imagine there’s anyone who’d do something like this.”

“You’ve no shortage of enemies.”

“Rivals. I don’t keep enemies. You know that.”

“Well,” Gerard said with a tight smile, “you may not think of them as enemies, but that doesn’t mean the feeling’s mutual. A lot of people would pay some girl bloody good money to see you toppled.”

“Let’s just see what they have to say.”

Detective Inspector Lawrence entered the room, this time with a uniformed constable who took up station against the wall. Lawrence had a large file and a tape recorder, which he placed on the table. “Has my client been formally charged with anything?” Gerard asked immediately.

“No,” Lawrence said, “but this is much for his benefit as ours. We want everything to be very much above board with this case.”

“Don’t you always want everything to be above board?” Gerard said.

“Of course,” Lawrence answered smoothly. “Let’s get on, shall we?”

“Yes,” Louis agreed, “I don’t want this dragged out.”

“Mr Masterson, you’re aware of the accusations made against you?”

“I’m aware that some girl I’ve never seen before has said that I committed some kind of sexual assault against her and I assume from the photo you showed me earlier that she was supposedly underage at the time.”

Lawrence nodded. “The witness claims she was twelve-years-old when the alleged offence occurred. According to her statement, she was in the care of an institution that you made sizable donations to in the late 90s.”

“You’ll have to be more specific, officer,” Louis said, “I gave a lot of money to charity in that decade. As I still do.”

“Quite. Let’s not go into too many details at the moment though, shall we?”

“Hold on, officer,” Gerard interrupted, “you can’t haul my client down here and subject him to this sort of treatment and then not give him all the facts – he has a right to defend himself. Who is this girl, and where is whatever happened supposed to have taken place?”

Lawrence scratched his forehead with the end of his pen. “Due to the sensitive nature of this investigation, the feeling is that we want to retain anonymity as long as possible.”

“My client isn’t being allowed his anonymity. What do you think will happen when news of this escapes, as it surely will?”

“They’ve already told me the date,” Louis said, “12th September ’99 was it? I know exactly where I was, and I know the institution you’re referring to. It was a school for children with learning difficulties. St. Mary’s? Yes, that was it. The son of a member of my accounts department was there. He told me about it at a company lunch once and I decided to make it one of my flagship charities shortly afterwards. Masterson Enterprises and St. Mary’s had a long and happy collaboration. I think they named their sports hall after me.”

“So what were you doing there on the date in question?”

“Attending a dinner in my honour. I met a number of children, but I don’t recall if the girl in the photographs you showed me was one of them.”

“Were you ever alone that evening?”

“It was over a decade ago!” Gerard spluttered, “Do you expect my client to recall every detail of every night of his life?”

“It’s all right, Gerard,” Louis said, “I might have visited the toilet once or twice, but otherwise no. Nothing untoward happened. It was an ordinary evening.”

“Are there witnesses that can corroborate that?”

“Probably more than a hundred, if you can track them down. Teachers, parents, students. I was accompanied almost the entire time. I would have had no opportunity to do anything…anything like what I’m being accused of.”

“Which we still don’t know any details of,” Gerard added.

Lawrence opened the file in front of him and perused a document filled with dense text for a short while. “The witness claims Mr Masterson took her into a classroom and asked her to disrobe. When she refused, he allegedly threatened her, and then forcibly undressed her, before placing his hands…”

“Stop,” Louis said, holding up a hand, “I don’t want to hear any more. Nothing like that happened. Nothing at all. It’s all a complete fabrication.”

“Needless to say,” Lawrence concluded as he shut the file, “the witness claims that a quite serious sexual assault ensued. You live alone, don’t you, Mr Masterson?”

“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” Gerard said.

“It’s fine. Yes, I live alone, what of it?”

“You’re a very private man. You have no known romantic partners, past or present.”

“I don’t like to talk about my personal life.”

“Well this is an investigation into a very personal attack, Mr Masterson. You’ve never married. Is there any reason why?”

“Lots of people don’t marry.”

“Are you a homosexual?”

“You don’t need to answer that,” Gerard said.

“I don’t mind. I want to get this over with. No, I’m not a homosexual. Would it have made a difference?”

“I expect so,” Lawrence said, “since the witness is female.”

“It was my understanding that most sexual abuse against children had little to do with attraction. It’s about power, and about the attacker’s own psychological immaturity.”

“You seem to know a lot about this…”

“I’m one of the world’s richest men,” Louis said with a thin smile, “I know a lot about many things.”

“Detective Inspector,” Gerard said, leaning across the table, “unless you have anything more than insinuations and veiled allusions to bring before my client, you’d better release him from your custody. Formally charge him, or we’re done here.”

“He isn’t in custody, just cooperating with an investigation. You’re free to leave at any time, Mr Masterson.”

“Then let’s go, Louis,” Gerard growled.

Louis started to stand, then paused. “Officer, I want this to be resolved as soon as possible. I’ll answer any questions you want me to, but I can’t give any insight into an incident that never occurred. What more can you possibly need to know?”

“We’re still questioning witnesses,” Lawrence said, “if more evidence comes to light, we’ll be in touch.”

“It won’t,” Gerard assured him, “and when we find out where this slanderous nonsense originates, we’ll be taking legal action of our own.”

“As you say. Good day, gentlemen.”

In the car, on the way to the office, Gerard was still visibly furious. “There is no limit to the depths people will stoop to in this country!” he said. Louis made a non-committal noise as he stared out of the window. “We’ll find out who’s behind it, Louis, don’t worry. Oh, they want to drag your good name through the mud, do they? Wait until they see what we do to them!”

“I don’t want a fuss. I never want a fuss.”

“We have to show them that Louis Masterson is not somebody that you fuck with! It’s become a joke. All it takes is some tart after a payday, and the mighty can be brought to their knees. What kind of world is this? We’ll have her details before you know it too. By the time we’re done with her, she’ll wish she was never born.”

“No, Gerard. I’m not after a war. I just want this to go away. And I don’t want anyone hurt. Especially not a vulnerable young woman who may be being taken advantage of.”

Gerard snorted. “Vulnerable? She’ll have her tits out in the Sundays before you know it. Another slag trying to make a name for herself. What happened to talent? What happened to hard work? People will do anything to be famous.”

“I just want this to go away,” Louis said again.

They walked into the office and were met at the door by Daniel. “What the hell’s going on?” he asked Louis. “We got a message saying you weren’t going to make the meeting with Hoshi-Wójcik but no explanation at all.” He clocked the solicitor. “Gerard? What’s going on?”

Louis beckoned him towards the frosted glass door of his own office and all three of them walked in. Vanessa Rutledge, the most senior member of the board after Louis himself, poked her head around the door right on cue. “What’s…?”

“Come in, all of you,” Louis said, “and close the door.”

“Bloody bastards,” Gerard grumbled once he felt they had sufficient privacy.

Daniel looked from one man to the other. “Would anyone mind explaining some of this?”

“You missed Hoshi-Wójcik,” Vanessa said, folding her arms.

“I know.” Louis was at the rarely-used drinks cabinet, and he took out four tumblers and a decanter of superior Scotch. He placed all four glasses on his desk and filled each with a generous measure. Wordlessly, his companions moved in and took them.

“Drinking in the day, Louis?” Daniel said, eyebrows raised. “What’s happened?”

“Gerard, fill them in.” Louis stood at the panoramic window of his office, looking out over the London skyline.

“Bloody bunch of feckless bastards,” Gerard said, waving his tumbler and causing the pale golden Scotch to slosh alarmingly up the angled sides. “Some prick has paid some little tart to concoct some story about Louis feeling her up at a party fifteen bloody years ago.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Vanessa said, “what does she want, money?”

“It’s more serious than that,” Louis told her in a numb voice without turning around, “she says it happened when she was twelve.”

“Fuck,” Daniel said.

“Fuck is bloody right,” Gerard said. “Luckily the pissing fuzz know which side their bread is buttered and they had the foresight to give us a bit of warning. No charges filed yet, but no real details either. Fat chance we keep it out of the tabloids though.”

Vanessa had turned back towards the door to the office, hands on her hips, and now she spun around, just in time to meet Louis’s eyes as he turned too. “You know what I’m going to bloody ask…” she began.

“No,” Louis answered, “categorically no. You know that.”

“All right. But you understand why?”

“I understand.”

“If this sticks…”

“It won’t stick,” Gerard said, “because nothing happened. No evidence, no fucking case. It’ll be the word of some bimbo against that of the country’s most beloved philanthropist.”

“If this sticks,” Vanessa went on, “it could bring the entire company down.”

“Nonsense,” Louis said, “I’m only one man.”

“The man with his name on the building,” Daniel pointed out, “and given how much of our charity work involves children…”

Louis gulped back what was left of his scotch and then dropped down heavily into his chair behind the wide glass desk. “Yesterday I was on top of the world. And now this.”

“We’ll fight it,” Daniel said, “forewarned is forearmed, right? There are no charges yet, so we can do some investigating of our own. What contacts do we have in Fleet Street these days?”

“Bunch of fucking piranhas,” Gerard was saying as he poured himself another scotch from the decanter.

“We have people,” Vanessa said, “I’ll make calls. We’ll find out everything we can. As far as I can see, our aim is to prevent this hitting the front pages. If any of the accusations had any substance, we’d have had to stump bail to have you sitting here, Louis. No, it’s as Gerard says – your word against hers, whoever she is.”

Louis nodded and then gestured with his tumbler. “Needless to say, this goes no further than these four walls. There are loyal people out there, but no one I’m not certain can’t be bought. You’re the only three I trust with this.”

Daniel smiled. “We’ll get you out of this, Louis. We owe you that much.”

Vanessa’s facial expression remained cold and unreadable, but she added, “Yes, we do.”

“Get me the details,” Gerard told them, “and I’ll wrangle us a way out of it. We’ll get them for bloody libel, even if they never print a word of it. Some bugger’ll hang, you have my word on that. For now, I’ll get an injunction, give us a few days breathing room.”

“Just…just make it go away,” Louis said, swirling his scotch around and around in his glass.

*

That afternoon, Vanessa walked into Daniel’s office. He stood up to greet her, but she waved him down and took a seat on the opposite side of his desk. “That fat bastard Gerard was right about the press being piranhas,” she said, “and they’re starting to work themselves into a frenzy over this.”

“What did you find out?”

“Everything. It’s common knowledge in every press room in London – all the sordid, disgusting details. They’d be publishing a late edition if they could. And it would be all the over the internet, of course. As it is, the injunction went through so they have to keep their traps shut until charges are filed.”

“Then we have nothing to worry about.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re younger than me; you should know how this bloody information age your blasted generation invented works. This will be on twitter soon enough: it’ll be leaked by someone in Fleet Street and then, once it spreads everywhere online, the injunction won’t mean a bloody thing. You know how it goes. How it always goes.”

Daniel ran a hand across his eyes. “So what then? We’re just fucked?”

“Maybe, maybe not. They’re piranhas, but we have some that are on our side, ready to turn against the rest of the shoal.” She tossed a pen drive to him across the desk. “Everything they have.”

Daniel picked it up and turned it over in his hands, as if it would give up his secrets that way. “We should give this to Louis…”

“I already went to him. He doesn’t want to see it. You’re the only one he trusts.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. The son he never had.”

“He called me that?”

“Of course not. I’m calling you that.” She leant back in the chair, placing a hand across her eyes as if willing away a migraine. “Why couldn’t he have had one bloody fling with some model or something? Just one indiscretion?”

“What do you mean?”

“If we could just point to some silly little episode in his past, some failed marriage, or a photograph taken in a strip club, anything that showed he was a normal man with a normal libido, rather than the sexless freak we all know and love, this would be so much simpler.”

“Would it?”

“Of course it bloody would!” Vanessa snapped, eyeballing him balefully. “That drive has drafts of the articles that three of the papers were going to run on page one tomorrow before the injunction came through. The phrase they all use is ‘confirmed bachelor’. You know what that’s code for? Pervert. They all paint him as some lonely, twisted recluse, masturbating furiously over pictures of kiddies in his empty penthouse. Oh, how the British press love a fallen idol. Yesterday he was everyone’s favourite uncle: now he’s everyone’s creepy uncle. No wife, no kids, no girlfriends, not even a boyfriend. He set himself up for this kind of thing.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Daniel said.

“No,” Vanessa agreed as she stood up and straightened her jacket, “but a fat lot of comfort that’s going to be when we’re all in the bloody dole queue. Go home early, Dan. I don’t want the contents of that drive getting anywhere near our network. If the coppers know we’ve got hold of it, it’s going to fuck up everything. Take it home, read the lot, and figure out what to do. Like I said, you’re the only one Louis trusts.”

“Right. Thanks, Vanessa.”

“Thank me when this whole filthy business is dead and buried.”

Daniel went home. When he walked through the door his wife, Sharon, looked at him in confusion from the kitchen. “What are you doing here? What’s happened?”

He walked over to her and slumped against the nearest cupboard. “Too much to explain.”

“Is everything all right?”

“Maybe?” He laughed, but there wasn’t much humour in it. “Louis has gotten into a spot of bother.”

She frowned. “What kind of bother?”

Daniel made a groaning noise and put his head in his hands for what felt like the hundredth time that day. “Bloody…fucking…some bullshit accusation…”

“Accusation? What kind of accusation?”

He sighed. “The worst kind.”

“Oh…oh…shit…”

“Yeah, that’s what we said.”

“Did he…?”

“No! Of course not. Can you even imagine? No. End of discussion.” He walked towards the kitchen table and slung his briefcase onto it. “But, I have some work to do, or the whole bloody company might end up down the shitter.”

“So what’s happening? Has he been arrested?”

Daniel shook his head. “Just questioned. No charges filed yet. It’s his word against hers, far as we can tell. We have an edge though, because the papers know everything and we,” he pulled out the pen drive, “know everything they know. So.”

“I’ll make you a coffee.”

He smiled. “Thank you.”

“I have to go and pick the kids up in a minute,” Sharon said as she turned on the kettle, “do you want me to take them out for pizza or something?”

“What? Why?”

She looked at him. “Do you know what’s on that stick yet?”

“No…”

“You might feel differently about all this when you do. I’ll take them to Luigi’s.”

Daniel nodded blankly. He’d been so wrapped up in thinking about how to avoid having Louis’s name dragged through the mud, he’d forgotten the nature of that mud. He’d anticipated an evening of tedious work – it now occurred to him that it might be harder going than he’d thought. “I’ll be in touch,” he told his wife.

The information on the drive was disorganised; it had obviously been sent over and downloaded in haste. Raw text for the most part, but some of the source documents were there too, including pictures of the accuser. She was pretty, but there was a haunted, empty look in her blue-grey eyes. Her name, he found out, was Charlie Sheppard. There were records here that proved she’d been at St Mary’s at the time of the alleged assault. She had been an unruly child – a little too bright for her own good, what would now probably be classed as ADHD – and her parents were too hard up for that kind of thing to be fashionable. So she got sent to St Mary’s, where everything was apparently fine until she hit year seven. Now what would that be? Daniel tried to do the maths in his head, based on his own daughters and their ages. May was in year five now, and she was ten…yes, Charlie would have been twelve, the age when Louis had supposedly assaulted her. Then, after that, things went off the rails. She fell through the cracks, left with no qualifications, lived on the street for a while. Daniel grimaced at the sad little life being laid out before him. Who knew how much of it was true though? It painted a damning picture, but so what? More than likely, whoever had concocted all this had found someone that fit the bill, rather than the other way around. There was a picture labelled prize_giving_Masterson_sep99.jpeg and he clicked on it. It was Louis, looking hardly any different at all, despite the intervening years, at some sort of presentation evening. He could see the St Mary’s crest in the background on a wall, and Louis was standing there, bent slightly at the waist, before a line of children. Great – just the picture to really set the mood of the story. He was shaking a boy’s hand and giving him a certificate of some sort. Daniel looked down the line of children. The quality was poor; it was obviously a scan of a physical photograph someone had gotten hold of, but he could see a blonde girl of about twelve standing there. It could be just his imagination but…no…it was all in the elfin little nose. That was Charlie, probably on the exact night it was all supposed to have happened. So, she’d been there. And, afterwards, her life had never been the same again. “Shit,” Daniel said.

He sat back in the chair. He was still at the kitchen table, the coffee Sharon had made him more or less untouched. He picked it up now and cringed at how cold it was, but took a swallow anyway. Staring at a screen was making him sleepy, but he had to power through. He had to save Louis and the company. There was a Word file called charlie_account and he let the cursor hover over it for a moment. He had to read it, didn’t he? He had to know everything. Even Louis didn’t know what this said, and he didn’t think Vanessa would have had time. He’d be the first friendly set of eyes to see this. He took a deep breath, and opened it.

Five minutes later, he closed it again, and shut the laptop. He sat silently for a long time. It was getting dark outside, and there were no lights on. He just sat there in the gathering gloom, thinking everything through, trying to put his brain back together.

He heard the car pull up outside, heard the voices of his children as they gambolled their way to the door. Heard the handle turn and saw, down the corridor, his wife and his two daughters – ten- and seven-years-old, still in their school uniforms, still buzzing from unexpected pizza – enter his home. “Daddy!” Alberta, the youngest squealed.

He stood up, smiled for her, and took her in his arms. “Hello, muffin,” he said, burying his face in her curls as she clung to him.

“Why are you home?” May asked, “And why are all the lights off?”

“Daddy didn’t notice it was getting dark,” he explained as he put Alberta back down, “and he had a lot of work to do.”

“Okay,” she said, accepting his explanation. She made to go upstairs, but her mother was hot on her heels.

“Remember what we said, May? Homework first! You’ve had a treat tonight, so no excuses!”

“I’m doing it!” May protested. “God, mum!”

Alberta plonked herself on the kitchen chair beside Daniel and started to open his laptop. “What have you been doing, daddy?”

Sharon to the rescue again. “Albie, go upstairs and get changed. I’ve got some Ben & Jerry’s for you and your sister later on, but you have to be extra good, okay?”

“Yay! Ben & Jerry’s!” Alberta said, throwing her hands in the air. She slid off the chair and her mother ruffled her unruly mop of hair as she rushed past and scampered up the stairs.

“They’ll never get to sleep with all that sugar,” Daniel said.

“It’ll be fine – they’ll burn it off playing Wii or something.” She turned her attention to him now. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“How is it?”

“It’s…bad.”

“Bad?”

He slumped down on the table, resting his head in his hands. He was getting bored of doing that now. “Horrible. Horrific. Everything you’re imagining and worse. Just the most awful stuff.”

“Oh God.” Sharon put a hand to her mouth. “But Louis isn’t capable of…”

“Exactly! And we know that! We know this man. Shit, Sharon, we love this man. He mentioned you and the girls in his bloody speech yesterday at the Darlington Awards. He’s spent Christmas with us before. He…he’s taken the girls out to Luigi’s himself. By himself. We trust him.”

She sat down beside him and took his hand. “It’s okay. We know it’s not true, don’t we?”

“God, but it’s so hard to be sure of anything when you read something that graphic. Something that vile. And it’s so plausible too. I was talking to Vanessa before, and she talked about him being a loner, about him never having been romantically involved with anyone. Remember…remember how we always joked about it? About how he must be gay, or asexual or something? How he just ‘isn’t like that’? It’s like imagining Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny having sex.”

Sharon laughed despite herself. “I always thought of him as above it all. So disciplined, so dedicated. He told me once he’d just never had the time. I mean, he never even looked at me like that. I’ve never felt safer around a man – except you of course.” She squeezed his hand.

“But then I get to thinking, about how it looks from outside,” he said, “What do people on the street make of him? He helps all these kids’ charities, he visits all the schools and hospitals he helped build. It looks bad, doesn’t it? He had opportunities. Jesus, Sharon, he had…had opportunities here…with…” He felt a sob rise up from his chest, thinking about the possibility, thinking of what could have happened, without their knowledge.

“Come on, come on,” Sharon moved closer and cradled his head against her chest. “Don’t be silly. The girls are fine. They’re fine. They love Uncle Louis. And they’re both so smart. You know they’d tell us right away if anything happened.”

“Would they?” Daniel asked, removing himself from her embrace.

“Of course they would,” she said with a smile, although there were tears in her eyes too, “but I’ll talk to them both tonight, separately. It’ll put your mind at rest. He’s spent so much time with May and Albie, and if they’re okay – which they will be – we can be certain that this whole thing is completely made up, all right?”

He nodded. “You’re right. You’re right of course. This whole nasty business,” he tilted his head back and wiped his eyes with the palms of his hands, “it’s just turned my brain inside out. I don’t know right from left. The sooner we can put it all behind us, the better.”

Daniel didn’t sleep well that night. Sharon told him that she’d talked to both of their daughters, and they’d both been more confused by her questions that anything else. Uncle Louis had been nothing but kind to them and had never asked them to do anything strange, or touched them anywhere bad. May, old enough to understand what she was being asked, had been appalled, and extremely defensive of her favourite uncle – even though she knew perfectly well he wasn’t her real uncle. “I believe them” Sharon had told him as they’d climbed into bed, “they’re fine, and we’ve got nothing to worry about. Tomorrow, you clear his name.”

And that was what he intended to do, though he had no idea how to do it yet. The claims were so lurid and sensational, the details so grotesque, that the lack of evidence would mean nothing. Michael Jackson had never been convicted, but everyone still looked at each other knowingly, even after his death, and said things like, ‘no smoke without fire, eh?’ It would never reach a courtroom – there was no evidence, no other witnesses, nothing to back up the accusation but the word of a damaged girl who was in the same building as Louis Masterson when the alleged crime was committed. That’s all. But, when the injunction became meaningless, when it was all over the internet, Louis’s name would forever be linked to the horrible story of a child being viciously raped in a darkened classroom. No detail was spared in the report, and the visceral nature of it made Daniel sick to his stomach. He knew, knew in his marrow, that Louis was incapable of that kind of thing. His sexlessness, his seeming agelessness, his general reclusive, studiously polite and private nature, painted a difficult picture, but Daniel knew the man, knew he was no paedophile. It was simply unimaginable.

But now he had a name. Charlie Sheppard, the wan, broken face of the enemy? It was hard to reconcile that too, but she wasn’t the real enemy here. Someone, somewhere in the background, had put her up to this, had put words in her mouth. The story was too neat, too perfect. There was some intelligence at work here, and Daniel realised, as sleep started to steal over him, that it was his job to find out who that was.

*

Louis stayed home the next day, which was good. Daniel wasn’t quite ready to look him the eye yet, and he wanted to go through Vanessa now anyway. He outlined his plan to her in her office. She pursed her lips, considering. “It’s risky…”

“I know.”

“And possibly illegal.”

“That too.”

“And there’s nothing in the files on that drive to link it back to anyone?”

He shook his head. “I went over them again and again. Which was about as pleasant as you’re imagining. There’s no name in there but hers.”

“But you think someone must have put her up to it?”

“Of course. Who put her in touch with all these press rooms? Why isn’t this an exclusive in one paper? No, this was carefully co-ordinated – at least five papers had the exact same account sent to them, and the others got slight variations leaked. Two are claiming they interviewed her. Someone with an inside line has been shopping this around, probably playing all the papers against each other. Exclusives are where the money is, so it’s not about that. The only explanation is someone trying to actively destroy Louis and, by extension, Masterson Enterprises.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Vanessa said, “and there are a few names that have already jumped to the top of my list.”

“Mine too.”

“Okay. I don’t see that we have a choice. Set up the meeting.”

It was risky. Insanely risky. He knew he could go to prison if this went as far as formal charges. The defendant’s protégée meeting with the prosecution’s only witness, off the record? No, that would be very bad indeed, for everyone. But he owed Louis this. He owned him for all the things he’d done, not just for him, but for his family and the whole company. He’d meant every word he’d said on that stage. Louis Masterson was a great man, and it was an honour to work for him. He thought of those Christmases where they’d invited him into their home, like he was a member of the family. Shit, he was a member of the family. He was Uncle Louis. Everything Daniel was, everything he’d achieved, he owed to Louis. So fuck yes he’d put his neck on the line. That was what you did. That was what loyalty was for.

He had a number. The voice that answered was tired, wary, but he reassured her, told her he was a friend, someone from the press, someone who wanted to help. He named a café he thought she’d know, from her address, and they agreed to meet. He didn’t feel good about it, but it was what needed to be done. Three hours later, he stepped into the café, looked around and saw her sitting there in a booth to one side. She was small, pale, even more downtrodden in real life than in her pictures. He had dressed down, tried to be inconspicuous, but he knew immediately that subterfuge would get him nowhere. He bought a cup of coffee and slid into the seat opposite her. She sat up warily, eyeing him with big, pretty eyes that were somehow flat and empty. “We spoke earlier?” he said. Charlie Sheppard visibly relaxed and he felt tiny, minute, pathetic at that moment. What had he become? “Listen, I have to be honest,” he told her, “I lied to you.”

“Oh..” She didn’t look surprised. Her voice was high-pitched and a little raspy from smoke.

“I’m sorry, but I just had to get you here, to talk to you face to face.”

“Right. So who are you?”

“My name’s Daniel Wellingbrook. I work for Masterson Enterprises.” She was already starting to stand up, but he put a hand gently on her wrist. “Please…just talk to me…we can help each other.”

Her eyes rolled down sickly to his hand and he withdrew it slowly. “How?” she asked.

“I want to hear your side. I want to know the truth. A good man’s future is in danger. In fact, a lot of futures may be in danger. Your story could ruin a lot of lives, Miss Sheppard.”

Charlie sat down slowly. “You think I don’t know that?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you know. I’ve only read about this second-hand.”

“How? There’s one of them…injunctions, isn’t there? Like Ryan Giggs had?”

“We have our sources. We know what the papers want to print, and the police have already talked to Lou…to Mr Masterson. The claims are pretty extreme.”

“What he did to me was pretty extreme.”

Daniel winced. “Okay. That’s your story. I’m not going to insult you by asking you whether it’s true or not. You believe it, or say that you do, and that’s where we are.”

“You think I’m lying?”

“I don’t know…”

“They all thought I was lying,” she said bitterly, “for fifteen years.”

“What?”

“Well, at first they said it was my fault, for leading him on. They said I must’ve thrown myself at him, and how could a man be expected to resist that?”

“You were twelve…” Daniel said, his voice catching slightly as he said it.

“Yeah, that were what I said. But then no one believed me. The police said there was no evidence and told me to fuck off back to the street corner where I belonged.”

Daniel turned her words over in her head. “So…you’ve tried to come forward about this before?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“Well…yes.”

“After it happened, I didn’t know where I was or what I should do. I told my teachers, and they chucked me out of school. Mr Masterson got his hands on the purse strings, see? We got to give him what he wants, or we’ll get closed down. That’s what they said. Don’t upset Mr Masterson, Mr Masterson is a lovely man. We owe Mr Masterson. So I were out on the streets, no qualifications, no nothing. What do you think happened to me then?”

“I don’t know…”

“No, you don’t,” she sneered, “you put on a coat from Burton, think it makes you look poor, but you still stick out like a sore thumb ’round here. What happens to the little people who slip through the cracks? Drugs, prostitution, sleeping rough. My parents didn’t want nothing to do with me neither, not after all that. When you get back to your office, you tell Mr Masterson what happened to me after he wiped off his cock and pulled his trousers up.”

Daniel stared down at his undrunk coffee. “I don’t understand,” he said, “you say you tried to tell people before, and nothing happened. Why is it different now? What changed?”

“Someone found me. I got together enough money for a flat, finally had an address to me name, and some bloke in a suit comes calling one night. Says he heard rumours that someone living at my address had a story about Louis Masterson, a bad story. I told him everything. I never kept nothing a secret. He was the first person who listened to me. Next thing I know, I’m talking to some coppers and they’re finally listening too. And I’m writing down things to send to the papers. But then I hear there’s an injunction or something, and I guess everything’s the same as always. I shouldn’t have got my hopes up. There are two kinds of people in this world, Daniel Wellingbrook. People what shit, and people what get shat on. Which do you think I am?”

“The man who came to see you. Do you know what his name was?”

She shrugged. “I only saw him once. He introduced himself, but I can’t remember what he said now.”

“That seems like a pretty important thing to forget…”

“It was Polish or something. Like I said, I never saw him again.”

Everything clicked into place for Daniel at that moment. He felt himself rising, already wanting to race back to the office as fast as possible. “Thank you, Miss Sheppard, this has been very useful.”

“Is that it then?” she asked.

“What?”

“You got what you needed to save your boss, I suppose. To make me go away. Same old story. You rich cunts, you don’t care about us normal people. You just don’t give a shit. We’re just pawns in a big game. It doesn’t matter what happens to us, as long as the right rich bastard wins in the end. We’re…what’s the word? Expendable. Yeah: expendable. But I was like you once. I was normal. I had a life, and hopes, and dreams. I was gonna make everyone proud. But I got picked, and I got ruined by your boss, Mr Masterson, and that were the end of everything for me. So, on your way back to your shiny office, you think about that, and you think about me, and you think about the twelve-year-old lying on the floor of that classroom, knickers ’round her ankles, bleeding from all the wrong places, and decide what’s important and what’s not.”

*

He did think about it. He thought about it for hours so that, when he finally made his decision, it was well past dusk. In the darkness, he trudged up the steps of the apartment block and nodded to Trevor, the big doorman. He pressed the intercom button, spoke to the voice on the other end, and was allowed up. He was still thinking as he rode the lift upwards in silence to the penthouse, still thinking as he let himself in and walked down the corridor. The living area was lit by only a few soft lamps. Classical music played quietly in the background. Louis Masterson, his mentor, the titan of industry, philanthropy and many more things beside, stood with his back to him, facing the huge window. He was wearing a lose shirt and slacks, both baggy over his spare, austere frame. He looked suddenly much older than he had before.

“It was Wójcik,” he announced.

Louis turned. His face seemed skeletal in the semi-darkness. “Excuse me?”

“The man who put her up to it. Wójcik, or one of his goons.”

“Ah, that explains it then.”

“Yes,” Daniel nodded, “it does. This whole business was about the Singapore deal. He was so angry at the meeting you missed, saying this was typical of you, that you never cared about business.”

Louis chuckled. “He never stops does he?”

“No, he doesn’t. He’s hated you for years. Hated us. You don’t like to think you have enemies, but he’s the worst of them all. We’ve sheltered you from it, I suppose, Vanessa and Gordon and Will and I, kept you from finding out the worst of his comments. You don’t read the papers, see, so you don’t see the vitriol he spews. He hates everything you stand for. He wants to take Masterson Enterprises and cut it into little pieces to sell off to the highest bidder. He has a dozen houses – a mansion in Buckinghamshire, a penthouse that puts this one to shame in Monte Carlo, a ranch in Montana, you name it – a fleet of gas-guzzling supercars. His media conglomerates push right-wing filth into the minds of the masses. He pays hardly any tax, he uses cheap labour from overseas, and he cheats on his wife with an endless parade of models. His children are insufferable, spoiled little shits. His eldest daughter has an expensive coke habit she funds with the proceeds from the sex tape she secretly leaked to the biggest porn site on the web. He is everything, everything, that you hate. That we hate. And this scandal, engineered by him, could have cost us so dearly. If Singapore went south, our share price would have tumbled and Hoshi-Wójcik could have moved in at their leisure. Them and their corporate scum allies. A bunch of sneering, caviar-eating billionaires, partying on yachts with supermodels, feeling up cocktail waitresses, lobbying on behalf of global-warming denial groups, spreading reductive, bigoted dogma to keep the poor people passive and ignorant. Oligarchs, thieves, slavers. If this had stuck, they’d have destroyed you and us, one of the few shining lights in this dark world.”

Louis clasped his hands. “Well put. I’m assuming, from what you’re saying, that this has all gone away now?”

“Effectively. The injunction won’t hold, but we can link Wójcik to it, and tar him with the same brush. Public opinion of him is already pretty low. Being tied to this story could sink him. Knowing that, as he surely does by now, he’ll flex his muscles and get the story pulled. He can’t allow himself to be connected to it. So, we called his bluff, and he backed down. Score one for the good guys.”

“Quite,” Louis agreed, “but I sense there is something else you’re not telling me…”

“I spoke with Charlie Sheppard.”

He made a good show of innocent confusion, but even in the half-light, Daniel made out the flicker of recognition in his eyes. “Charlie who?”

“The girl at the centre of all this, the one from St Mary’s.”

“You…spoke with her? How?”

“Face to face. We’ve been investigating on your behalf, Louis, doing everything we can to ‘make this go away’, just like you asked. We’d do anything for you, you know. Me, Vanessa, Gerard, probably. Even Sharon. You’re like family. But I met her, and I spoke with her, and I heard some things I didn’t like.”

Louis said nothing, just looked at Daniel for a long time. “You know,” he finally said, “there’s no proof. All you have is my word against hers. The word of some woman you don’t even know. This doesn’t have to be difficult. As you said, the good guys won.”

“Yes, we did. We won, and this all goes away, like it never existed.”

“It didn’t exist.”

“Maybe you’ve convinced yourself of that, Louis. Maybe the lie has become buried so deep inside you that you’ve built it into the very fabric of yourself, incorporated it so that it’s held as dearly as any truth. Even if you were drunk, even in your most unguarded moments, you’d be incapable of admitting it. It’s not a part of you. It’s off to one side, compartmentalised, boxed off and hidden safely away, never to be confronted. The truth is that you’re right, I don’t know what happened that night. I’ve read some horrible things, spoken to a damaged woman, and I still can’t decide. I just…can’t decide…”

Louis turned away slightly. Most of his face was in shadow now, so Daniel couldn’t see his expression but when he spoke his voice was very quiet. “So what will you do? Go to the police? Dredge this all up again?”

“And let Wójcik win? You know I can’t let that happen. We’ve worked too hard, done too much good. I can’t allow that man to destroy us, not for any reason.”

“Well then. Why come here? Why say all this?”

Daniel looked down at the floor, tried to steady his breathing, stop his heart from pounding near enough out of his chest. “I keep…I keep coming back to one thing, Louis. To one idea.”

“Oh?”

He looked up. Louis was staring intently at him from the shadows now, his eyes two gleaming points in the blackness where they reflected the lights. “I read a story once, by a writer called Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t expect you’ve read it. I don’t even remember what it’s called now, but I remember what happens. It’s not even a story really, just an idea. It goes like this: there is a city, a beautiful wondrous city of light and joy and music and science and good, perfect things. Everyone who lives there is happy. The weather is always fine, the harvests are always bountiful, there is no war or crime or anything awful at all. It’s a utopia. But, the wellbeing of that city and the prosperity of its inhabitants are made possible only by one awful, sinister bargain. You see, somewhere in some dungeon in the depths of that city is a lonely, tormented child, living in darkness and its own filth, fed scraps, never given so much as a kind word. It’s a skinny, ruined thing, half-insane from loneliness, starvation and neglect. But the survival of the city depends entirely on that child’s suffering. If they freed it, cleaned it up, fed it, the whole utopia would instantly collapse. Don’t ask me how; it’s not important to the story. The point is that all that goodness, all that joy and light, is powered by that one neglected child. And everyone in the city knows it – they can go and see the kid any time they like – see its suffering and squalor, and almost everyone decides in the end that it’s the lesser of two evils to carry on this way. That this…this…what was the phrase? This abominable misery of one innocent is a worthwhile price to pay for the comfort and happiness of millions of others. And they go on with their lives as before.”

Louis watched him. When he said nothing more, he asked, “And how does the story end?”

“It doesn’t really, except to say that some people, when confronted with that appalling truth, when they realise the cost of their continued wellbeing, decide the price isn’t worth it after all. And those ones, they just walk away from the city and they never come back.”

Louis stood there, a ghoulish, angular figure in the darkness, silhouetted against the twinkling London skyline. Slowly, he turned away, clasping his bony hands behind his back again. “I’ll expect your letter of resignation on my desk tomorrow, Daniel,” he said.

“It’s already waiting for you, Mr Masterson.”

And then he left, and never came back.

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One Response to Omelas

  1. Pingback: Writing About Writing II | realityisinsufficient

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