Corporate finance.

Danny Marriambene (PA, CEO) watched impassively as the boss talked to his broker. The man on the other end of the line's voice was clearly audible, even from here. "It's a really bad time to sell, Mr. Carpaccio," he pleaded. "Gold bullion prices are right down. The mining shares are catching cold from it. Hang on to them . . ."

"Sell. Sell now," snapped Vigo Carpaccio. "And don't buy me any more. Ever."

Danny quite understood why. These days Vigo Carpaccio wanted gold-mining shares in his portfolio like he wanted an extra hole the head. They'd been a good investment once, but things had changed over the last six weeks. Were still changing.

It had begun just over that six weeks back, in a shadowy, dusty, abandoned steelworks in Chicago.

The only footprints in the thick dust of this room were those of Mr. Carpaccio and his two escorts. The fourth person in the room might as well have flown there. There was no trace of his passage in that dust.

Danny hadn't noticed this at the time, however. He'd only picked up on it up later. He'd been too angry at the time.

You didn't talk to The Man like that. As if he was some snotty school-kid. As for shitting him out for being late, that was right out. Danny remembered looking down, seeing that his knuckles were white, he been holding his Colt automatic so tightly. He'd nearly pushed it right through his damn filofax. Holy Mother! Who did this short little shit think hewas, primping around in a fancy-pants nightgown with a cloak and hood, telling The Man that he wouldn't tolerate sloppy work?

He'd glanced across at Senior Accounts Manager Smooth Mario O'Hogan. Mario was big on tradition . . . he'd even changed his name from Michael to Mario, to be more in keeping with tradition. He didn't approve of The Man's changes. Tradition meant respect, as far as Mario was concerned. Even at business meetings. Yeah. Danny had noticed that Mario was just as uptight. Not even being aware that the ash from his cigarette was falling down the front of his neat pinstripe, the jacket he'd had to send back to the cleaners four times after that Challiso account settlement. Goddamn lard had splattered both of them after the explosion.

The Man himself had remained cool, however. Drawing a little hard on his cigar, perhaps. But his voice had been smooth, urbane, businesslike. "Mister. I'm here. Taking a chance, maybe. But don't you try my patience . . . too far. The sample you sent me was good. That's why I've put up with this . . . so far. But now, I want to see the rest. What's it in? US dollars or pounds? The letter had a UK postmark, so we know where you operate. You better have the money. Otherwise Danny and Mario can take you for a little . . . consultation. Maybe help you with a spot of . . . bridging finance."

Fancy-Pants had snorted. He hadn't seemed much hassled, and he must have been smoking inside that hood. Anyway, a cloud of yellowish smoke had come puffing out along with the sound. "Come."

He'd led them across the echoing, dusty room to a tarpaulin-covered pile.

"Your advance," he paused and flicked the tarpaulin aside, "in gold."

The ingots stood in a gleaming pile.

"Approximately one billion US dollars worth. Maybe a little more."

He'd waited until they had recovered their jaws. "That," he had said dismissively, "is nothing. Capital to be going on with. A mere token of my faith in you. Maybe a thousandth of what the deal is finally worth. This is what I want done . . ."

He'd begun detailing equipment to be bought. Sub-machine guns. Heavy-caliber hunting rifles with sniper scopes, rocket launchers. Welding goggles. Hand grenades. A hovercraft. The best GPS equipment available. And where they had to be, and when. And not one second later. Then details of the task. And details of the equipment he would supply. They listened. If it hadn't been for that pile of gold they'd have told him he was having hallucinations. But, as the gold was both heavy and real, Danny and Mario didn't take him for a quiet disinvestment venture. Instead they listened respectfully.

"Finally, here is a plan of the Institute's buildings." He'd pointed to a small table next to the ingots "And these are the names, addresses and photographs of the ones that must die before the end of next month." He'd singled out a photograph of a tall, gangly, skeletally thin coffee-colored individual with an inane grin on his face. "James 'nKosi Harkness-Smythe. Sometimes called 'Squigs.' He is the most important of all. If he lives beyond the 29th, we stand to lose all. I want him dead.I want him in pieces. Small pieces. I want to see them. Is this clear?"

The Man had looked at the gold. "Yes, Mister. . . ."

"You will call me M'lord. It is one of my titles. Well, I must be going. Remember, you are under no circumstances everto be late again." The hooded man turned to look at Mario and Danny. "Are these your bodyguards?"

The Man was severely affronted. Danny knew how hard he had struggled to drag the organization into the twenty-first century. How many heads had had to roll in that restructuring process, and what a huge undertaking transformation had been.

But that was an awful lot of gold. So The Man answered, through clenched teeth, "Big Danny is my Personal Assistant and Chief Executive Officer. Smooth Mario, here . . . he is the Carpaccio Corporation's Senior Accounts Manager. He settles accounts for us, undertakes our aggressive acquisitions and deals with people who stand in the way of corporate expansion."

"M'lord. You forgot," the hooded figure said coldly. "I suggest you remember in future. Just understand, I cannot be killed by mere mundane things like bullets . . . put the thought right out of your mind. You pride yourself on your men's appearance, do you not?"

"Yes. They do have a certain . . . reputation . . . M'lord," said The Man, grudgingly. The tone suggested a repayment at a later date.

A hand had stretched out from the drape-in-the-soup sleeve of the gown. The nails were pointed, almost talon-like. Some grayish-white powder had drifted down onto Smooth Mario's gleaming wing-tip. "Then why did this employee come to work with a squid on his foot?"

The beast had its tentacles wrapped lovingly around Mario's leg. As Mario screamed, it squirted ink onto his four-hundred dollar tailored trousers.

By the time they looked up, M'lord Fancy-Pants had gone.

"Pizza da' merde!" swore Vigo Carpaccio.

Danny had been shocked. The Man never allowed such expressions to sully his Harvard Business School trained methods. "Danny, check with Looie and Salvatore outside. I'll talk to Johnny on the roof. I want know who this guy is. Where he went to, without even leaving us his business card! Come on, Mario! Stop behaving like that. I'm sure the cleaners will be able to get it out."

But of "M'lord's" passing there'd been no sign, not even in the dust.

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