Damian J. Clay
I’m told, in business, the most important decisions are often made over dinner. This one holds the possibility of changing my life forever.
Vowel sounds from the conversation echo loudly around the room. The plain brick walls are as clean as polished gold. Only an original Sassoferrato interrupts their perfect rectangular symmetry. Were it not for this Madonna or the antique banquet table she solemnly looks down upon, one might think this was a wine cellar.
The truth is, it used to be.
Until the Muldoon expanded into the premises of the foreclosed soap shop beside it, this room contained a collection of wine exclusive enough to make even the most seasoned sommelier weep. That collection is now next door, and this basement is reserved for exclusive private dining.
I know this because I’ve been here before. Once a year, at the end of each summer term from secondary school through to my graduation at Oxford, my father would bring me here for a dinner and a man-to-man talk.
“…and the Monaco office has one of the finest views out on the Mediterranean that I have ever seen.” Sitting to my left, John Phoenix – if that is his real name – Director of the London office. He barely touched his crème brûlée before placing the spoon back on the serving dish and sliding it precisely to the six-thirty position. He wears a black suit, red and blue tie, and, on his wrist, a fat gold watch.
“When are we likely to see that?” asks Christian: black suit, aqua and ivory striped tie – that he’s forever adjusting – slightly too-long blond hair, sitting opposite me.
“Surely at some point after we pass the final test,” says Simon: black suit, burgundy weave tie, cropped black hair. His fingers twitch next to the pack of cigarettes he’s left on the table.
“Indeed.” John reaches for his glass of water. “You’re particularly quiet tonight, Oliver?”
The sudden use of my name brings me back to full attention. Ever since the four of us sat down for dinner, I’ve been unable to take my eyes off the painting. It’s the blues of the Virgin’s silk robes that captivate me. Something about the slightly varying shades across the length of the garment makes it almost impossible for me to draw my gaze away. It is like being sucked into another time or falling in love. “Sorry. I just can’t help looking at it. Drives Father mad when we dine here.”
“It does rather have that effect. Would you believe it was a present to the owner of this restaurant from our company?” He looks over at the stairs. “Ah, the chocolates.”
A waiter walks down and places a silver plate in front of each of us. On each is a single chocolate truffle.
“These are handcrafted in Switzerland from the finest Mexican cocoa – almost impossible to get hold of for most people.” John lifts his chocolate to his nose and breathes deeply. “I would join you in one, but my diabetes prevents me from having any more than a single spoonful of dessert, let alone one of these.”
We each pick up our chocolate and eat them in unison. At first as salty as an anchovy, the flavor settles into a deep cocoa as it begins to melt.
“Bring in the Delamain.”
The waiter hurries off at John’s instruction, and, as we finish off savouring our chocolate, each of us is served a glass of fifty-year-old cognac.
Christian picks his up.
“Don’t drink it yet!” says John. “Let it breathe while I tell you all of the final test.”
Christian puts the glass back down again.
“As you know,” John continues, “there is ultimately only one position open every year, and all three of you have done extremely well by getting this far and seeing off the other twenty-one contenders. As you so rightly said, Simon, there is a final test, the result of which will determine who joins the firm and who leaves with nothing.”
“What are we going to do?” Simon holds up his fist. “Rock, paper, scissors?”
Christian laughs as his eyes flit nervously between Simon and me.
John gives the slightest smile. “No, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea. I’ll have to remember it for next year’s crop.” He reaches under the table and brings out a digital timer which is counting upwards, currently at just over two minutes. “A few moments ago each of you consumed one of those lovely chocolates without realising that all of them contained a rather slow-acting but deadly poison which, depending on your constitution, will potentially kill you in as quickly as ten minutes after exposure, so about seven and a half minutes from now.”
The wine I’ve drunk carries the adrenaline through my body.
Christian raises a hand as though to object. A moment later, it crashes down on the table.
“Now, none of you need worry,” John continued, “because in front of you, mixed in the brandy, is the antidote. All you need do to stop the poison from working is take a drink. Then you can leave and forget all about us. The last of you to take the antidote will get the position in our company and everything that comes with it: exclusive penthouse, chauffeur driven car, and seven figure salary plus bonuses. That, dear fellows, is the game.”
In the absolute silence which follows that statement, I’m reminded of the game my father used to make me and my brother play. In the cold winter holidays when he’d put the heating on, he’d command us to grab hold of the radiator and place a £50 note on the dining table. “Whoever keeps hold longest gets the money.”
Nobody else speaks. I exchange brief glances with Simon and Christian, and think through what I’ve been able to piece together about them from the little I’ve seen during the selection process. I become aware of myself and consciously sit back in my chair and smile. I look directly at Christian who, by his physical outburst, certainly seems to be the easiest target.
He meets my gaze then looks away uncomfortably again, turning back to see the timer, now on four minutes. He stands up, making his chair scrape back on the paneled floor, as though he’s about to complain. He necks the drink and walks out without saying another word.
“My my,” says John, “two to go. Who will it be?”
Now, Simon and I stare at one another. His hands palms-down on the table either side of the brandy glass, mine at my sides. I force myself to stare into his eyes and not look at the clock. Whoever looks at it first is the loser. I can just see it out of the corner of my eyes. Does it say eight minutes or is that a six? My stomach turns over and can’t decide if it’s the meal, the stress or the poison beginning to work.
Simon is breathing quickly, sweating, and has turned a beetroot colour. His expression might say that he’s composed but everything about his reactions are saying otherwise. Then I spot it, the merest flick of his eyes towards the clock, then right back at me.
I realise how tense I’ve become and how I’m lurching forward in my chair. I sit back and relax.
“You’re not fooling anyone, you know?”
I laugh and look back at the painting, absorbed in its cerulean depths. I’ve won this game already. I could die looking at this painting and not think of a happier time to do so. I never lost that game against my brother and I wasn’t going to lose now.
“This is a bloody stupid test!” Simon brings his fist down on the table as if to punctuate the sentence, gulps down the brandy, then leaves.
I breathe out slowly, savouring the pressure against my lips, then reach for the glass in front of me.
John grabs my hand and shakes his head. The timer goes off. “The chocolates were never poisoned – the cognac was.”
I laugh and see the sense of it. We can’t let anyone know what happens within the firm.
The waiter comes back in, clears the glasses, then brings in a fresh bottle of brandy, pouring the two of us a large measure. The taste lights my mouth on fire and yet when I swallow there is no burn, just a pleasant warming.
“I knew you wouldn’t give in,” says John. “Just like your father. How is he? I’ve not seen him since I was last at the office in Geneva.
Damian Jay Clay is a poet and novelist working in the UK. His poetry credits include Forward and Strand. His short story, Coffee?, was anthologised in the Eva Salzman, True to Life, collection. His debut, young adult, LGBT themed novel, The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Malachi the Queer, is available to buy on Amazon. When not wasting his life away playing Magic: The Gathering, he can generally be found hanging out at The INKubator writing community on Discord.