Art Pact 246 - Stocks and Shares

The precipitous drop in stock prices, though, was hardly a worry for my portfolio - which consisted two shares in Manbourder Industries left to me by my uncle. Manbourder Industries, from what I could tell, was a holding company that held precisely one other company - a fifty-three percent share in a clothes shop in Seven Dials called "Tall and Dark" which catered to overweight and unusually tall goths - generally the former, despite the shop's more optimistic name. The shares, since they were not publicly traded, had no easily calculable public worth, and since whenever I walked past the shop on the way to my day job (filling in forms in the travel agency) it was either closed or open but empty, I imagined that profits were unlikely to be flowing to the parent company fast enough to justify any sort of dividend. Indeed, I assumed that the holding company had originally been set up as some sort of simple shell system so that the shop could be jettisoned when (as seemed inevitable) it finally exhausted whatever reserves of cash and stock it had, without the implosion taking the shareholders with it. I could have looked into it more closely, of course - it's easy to say that with hindsight - but two shares in anything seems pointless. After all, how many companies divide their shares into simple fractions? That's how houses are divided after divorces, not complicated financial entities. A thousand shares in a company - now that's worth something. Two shares? Two shares are pointless.

I answered the door late one Saturday morning to discover a smartly-dressed woman standing outside with a briefcase clutched in front of her thighs. I was still in my dressing gown, half-way through the second cup of coffee of the morning and still not feeling entirely conscious, let alone fully awake. It had been a long night of television and fruitless self-abuse (I had somehow managed to fall asleep in the middle of it, so boring at sex that even I couldn't stay awake when I was doing it), and I had looked forward to wallowing in indulgent self-pity for the rest of the weekend, getting all of the recrimination and grief out of the way on my own time so that I could strap on a mask of happiness - or at least basic neutrality and competence - that would allow me to make it through another working week. To say I was under-prepared for a business meeting was to say that the dinosaurs were under-prepared for meteor season.

"Hello Mister Brunt," said the woman, sticking out her hand. I stared at it for a few seconds, unable to work out what it was for. She didn't seem bothered by my slowness. "My name is Karen Dowd, perhaps you've heard of me?"

"I.." I croaked, swallowed, tried again. My mouth, courtesy of the coffee and of last night's solo drinking, was full of a sort of foul-tasting adhesive ash. "I have not," I finally managed.

"Oh. Well, I'm a friend of your uncle's. Your uncle George."

"Right," I said, nodding. "Sorry." I wasn't sure what for, but there seemed to be plenty of things to be sorry for in that statement.

"Could I come in?" she asked.

I glanced back at my living room. It seemed inadvisable, but on the other hand a good honest pigsty is a good way of getting rid of unwanted visitors. Was she unwanted? I had no idea. I was barely able to focus on her face with the combination of no glasses, hangover headache, and caffeine buzz. I nodded, though, and let the door open a bit more - enough for her to squeeze in. She walked straight past me, into the living room, and perched herself on the single dining-room chair that was in there. I didn't blame here. The sofa was dangerously piled with books and empty bottles, with one hole where a person could sit that was in the shape of my arse. If she'd sat there there was every chance that the other occupants of the chair would have collapsed in on her in a papery avalanche, trapping her.

"I love this chair," she said, confusing me for a moment. I remembered that I'd inherited it too, along with two others (there should have been three more, but one had been broken by my uncle in the course of the decorating that had proved fatal to him). "I used to sit on it when Brandon and I went to visit George. We'd talk about all sorts - money, the state of the world, philosophy. Pets," she added, nodding. "Do you know if they ever found Albert?"

They had not ever found my uncle's near-silent parrot, or if they had, they had not told me. I wasn't even sure who they was in this context, since most of the cleaning out had been my job. If Albert had come back to his home since my uncle died, I would have been the person most likely to be there when it happened, even accounting for my infrequent and hurried visits and the fact that it had been over a year. I suppose the new council tenants might have been visited, but they were refugees from Sri Lanka. Would they have known what they were looking at? Does Sri Lanka even have parrots?

"I expect you're wondering how I knew your uncle."

I wasn't. But I had no idea what the purpose of the visit was, and was more than happy to allow her to set the agenda. I sat down on the sofa myself. The woman looked away conspicuously and I realised that there was perhaps a little more gape in my dressing gown than was strictly necessary. I adjusted myself back into decency.

"We met through some shared interests in business," she continued, when I had finished my adjustment. "George and I, and Brandon, were very interested in a certain aspect of human morality and how it affected business and the flow of money."

That didn't sound like George at all. George was only interested in one thing - thieves. Particularly shoplifters. I remembered how obsessed he'd been, ranting away, and only after half a minute of this reverie did I realise that that sounded exactly like what she was describing.


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