Clear Cut is an environmental thriller set in Alberta. It was a top semi-finalist in Amazon’s 2008 Breakthrough Novel Contest.
Here is how it begins…
itroglycerin. For the past six years his life revolved around those small white tablets. During office hours, which were often fourteen hours long, they sat in an antique silver pillbox on the top right corner of his desk always discreetly at hand. It was a routine now. Each morning since being diagnosed with Angina, George Brocklin unpacked his briefcase and placed his pillbox on his desk beside a small crystal bowl full with jelly beans. Then, as a reward for making it through another night he popped a jelly bean into his mouth. Only one. It was a matter of will power. He was only fifty-seven but his genetic predisposition, coupled with the bulge around his waist and the stress of running a large corporation had saddled him with an extra burden; his own mortality.
It was late Thursday. Most of the employees had left the office for their homes and families. By this hour they would have finished dinner and be tucking their children into bed. As President, George Brocklin’s day started before his employees and always continued late into the night. George believed that willingness to work was the determining factor in corporate distillation; the people who rose to the top and stayed there did so because they worked harder and faster than everyone else. George Brocklin would spin as fast as it took to hang on to his power.
Despite the late hour he was booked on a morning flight to Calgary. He had a round of meetings scheduled for the following afternoon in Pitts’ Calgary office with Ken Markham, a long time employee and friend. George had promoted Ken and sent him off to Calgary around the same time that Pitts got the green light to open an office in the neighbouring province.
He was expected at Markham’s for dinner Friday night and had cheerfully accepted the invitation though he never intended to go. He would back out at the last minute. He might feign an emergency meeting. Alternatively he could place a hand over his chest and breathe with exaggerated slowness; his angina was useful sometimes. As a last resort there was Pam, though it was difficult to use his wife as an excuse with Ken and Kathleen Markham; the couples knew each other so well.
“What do you want me to do?”
George looked up across his desk at the handsome, well-dressed man seated in the armchair opposite him. A heavy dossier from the forensic accounting firm of Wackenhutt & Grimsby lay balanced on his long crossed legs.
Robert Ward: tanned, fit and in his thirties. He looked like an athlete, George thought. Or a film star. George was aware of the rumblings around the office; grumbles that Ward had been promoted over more senior, more deserving employees. To himself however, no one had issued a direct word of complaint. As it should be, he thought. Ward’s performance as CFO had not been remarkable but it was decent enough. Until today. This dossier that Bob held so casually on his lap, this information that he had uncovered, once presented to the Board, would ultimately win Bob their respect.
George drummed two fingers on the lid of his silver pillbox then he pressed the call button for Ellen, his secretary. Within seconds an efficient looking woman walked through the large oak and brass doors. She didn’t waste time with small talk. It was late and she was tired. She knew she didn’t leave her office until her employer left his. Her pad was instantly at the ready.
George dictated his orders. “Ellen, I want you to change my flights.” She wrote as he spoke. “Get me out earlier tomorrow. Say 7:00 am. Call Ken Markham and let him know I’ve moved the meetings up.”
“Mr. Brocklin,” Ellen said. “The Calgary office will be closed by now. Would you like me to call Mr. Markham at home?”
“No. That won’t be necessary. Send an email.” George checked his watch. “Then I want you to book me on a flight from Calgary to Ottawa tomorrow afternoon. See if there’s one around two o’clock.”
“Is that all?”
“Call Stewart Nichol in Ottawa. I want him in my hotel room an hour after my plane lands. You work it out. No emails, Ellen. Talk to him directly and don’t take any excuses.”
“Yes. Anything else?”
“No.” He didn’t say any more and Ellen didn’t expect anything. That was the way they worked. Strictly business. Never anything personal. This suited Ellen well enough. She didn’t like her boss. She never had. It wasn’t due to anything particular that he had said or done. But he made her uncomfortable. She had thought often about looking for another job. If it were not for the remarkable salary and bonuses, she would never have stayed this long. The kind of money Mr. Brocklin paid was hard to walk away from. She left the room quickly, closing the door behind her.
As soon as she was out of earshot Ward learned forward and pleaded earnestly. “George, I don’t think that’s a wise idea.”
“What? Meeting Stewart?”
“If you confront Nichol without a subpoena in your hands, evidence may disappear. Hell, Nichol may disappear!” He picked up the file folder and dropped it on the desk in front of Brocklin. “Let’s take what we’ve got and charge this guy.”
“No? Why the Hell not?”
“He’s working. He’s effective.”
“He’s a thief!”
George leaned across his desk towards Ward. He was calm. He spoke firmly, with assurance. “Bob, we do have to stop him, but we cannot send him to jail. Stewart Nichol is the best lobbyist pulp and paper has ever had. Since we brought him north, Stewart has politically neutralized Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.”
“Then we should be okay. We don’t need him.”
“Don’t be naïve,” George said with a soupçon of disgust. “Every time environmentalists target the forest industry we’re forced back to Ottawa with our hands in the company wallet shelling out indecent sums of money for more environmental safeguards. Did you see the paper this morning?”
Ward nodded. “I saw it, George. It was a very small article, the size of an obituary, about some proposed environmental legislation. It probably went unnoticed by most people.”
“You’re missing the point. How does a Bill that hasn’t even had its second reading yet manage to get any coverage at all? The press never pays attention to legislation until after it’s come back from Committee.”
“I assume you’ve talked to Nichol. What did he say?”
“He said it started out as a nothing Bill. It was spoon-fed to a new Liberal MP by Parents for a Greener Canada.”
“I thought Green was just a parents’ group: A PTA, feel-good type of organization: school recycling programs, funding environmental education, things like that?”
“Apparently it’s evolved. I gather they’ve collected enough money from membership fees and bake sales,” he said with sarcasm, “to fund a Tier One lobbyist. His name is Martin Abraham. Stewart’s looking into him.”
The self-same Stewart Nichol who’s been robbing us blind for years, Ward thought. Great. Just great. He leaned back into his chair. He had a good poker face; he knew it and he was grateful for that now. He let his eyes roam around the room taking in the décor he had seen a hundred times. He knew it by rote. George may be an original thinker in the boardroom, but when it came to selecting art for his office he was a fifteen year old boy looking to wear his Gap and A&F labels on the outside. Hanging on the walls were two Emily Carr’s; this was Vancouver where lots of her work still hung in private homes of people whose parents had been her contemporaries. There was one AY Jackson, a Tom Thompson sketch, and an extremely large white-veined grey marble sculpture of a bear: BC marble no doubt. Rounding out the collection was a very old Haida soapstone. He stifled a sigh and re-entered the debate. “What about the Bill, George? Can Nichol handle it?”
“He says yes. He thinks the Bill is probably too drastic to pass. Even D’Arcy didn’t want it. He put on a six month hoist.”
“I don’t know what that it is.”
It was Brocklin’s turn to pause. He knew Ward was very good with numbers; A skill of paramount importance for a Chief Financial Officer, but Christ! How does a thirty-something year old man manage to go through 12 years of school and 6 years of post-secondary education in a country and not learn about its government? A sad, sad indictment of Canadian education.
George explained. “The six month hoist is a stall tactic. When a Bill comes up for its second reading in the house it is supposed to get debated and either dropped from the Order Paper or forwarded to a Standing Committee. However, an MP, it can be any Member of Parliament, can pre-empt this by making a motion that the bill does not get its second reading now, but six months in the future. Stewart believes that D’Arcy wanted the six months to prepare a good argument to ensure the bill gets dropped before it has a chance to get to Committee.”
“Is that normal?”
George nodded. “It happens frequently.”
“So, what’s the problem? If Nichol is confident that the Bill won’t survive its second reading, then that’s good. Everything’s fine”
“Normally, yes. But Green seems to be able to engage the media and that means the hoist might work in their favour. They now have six more months to parade their cause in front of press. Every day that it remains a public issue, every day that the news makes us appear like environmental villains, it affects our ability to negotiate with government. More importantly, it affects our stock prices. We cannot afford this now. We need a strong lobby now more than ever.”
“You mean to tell me you’re going to let Nichol stay just because he’s done a good job? He’s a crook, George! The highest paid crook in Ottawa!”
Brocklin let out a low rumble of a laugh. “Hardly.”
“Okay, but he is the highest paid Tier One lobbyist in the country.”
“And he’s earning his money. We are going to keep him in place as long as we can. What do you think it will look like if the press discovers that the guy selling pulp and paper as a clean, honest industry is going to jail for fraud and embezzlement?
“No, Bob. Stewart stays; at least until the Green Bill has gone the way of the Atlantic Cod. But in the meantime, if it makes you feel better, I’ll start a search for another Tier One in Washington: the NRA, the tobacco lobby, all the usual places. When I find one, I’ll phase him in gradually so we don’t loose any ground in Ottawa.”
Ward looked hard at Brocklin. George possessed the remarkable ability to transform his veneer from CEO, to husband, to jolly uncle, to lover, all in the blink of an eye. It was a rare event when he allowed his masks to slip in public. A business mistake was equally rare. But Ward believed George’s course of action was wrong this time. True, it was not the first business disagreement they’d had. But he believed it might prove to be the most serious.
“All right, George. It’s your show. I’m just your money man.” He hesitated, then said, “It’s just…” His voice trailed off.
Ward stood up. “Nothing. Never mind.”
He eyed the jelly beans on Brocklin’s desk but thought twice about helping himself. Instead he turned and headed for the door. In the intense silence of the room, the noise of the handle turning and the pull of the door across the carpet seemed clamorous.
Ward turned back and looked at George. There was no veneer now. George’s face was stripped hard, his eyes icy cold. Ward felt a chill, something close to fear. One look at that face reminded him how cold-blooded his mentor could be.
“You were about to say something a moment ago.”
“It’s really not important.”
“Perhaps. But I still want to know. What was it?”
George had a commanding voice. Ward felt compelled to answer.
“It’s this meeting you’re going to have with Stewart Nichol.”
“What about it?”
Ward cleared his throat. He needed time to compose himself. He needed to keep his voice even, devoid of criticism. Finally he said, “If you want Nichol to stay on as lobbyist, that’s your call. But don’t confront him about the embezzlement. Don’t even let him know you suspect.”
“Christ, George. If I had stolen that kind of money from you and I thought you knew about it… Hell, I’d bug out the minute your back was turned. Even if it meant leaving with nothing.”
George leaned back in his large, leather chair while he considered Bob’s words. His elbows were perched on the armrests and his fingers laced together. They rested on the swell of his belly.
“May I give you a friendly piece of advice?”
Friendly my ass, Ward thought. Another look at George’s face reminded him to keep quiet. He knew more than anyone did how cold-blooded his mentor could be. This was not the time for flippancy. “Your advice is always welcome.”
George smiled. But it was a mirthless grin. “Don’t put yourself in that position. Don’t ever cross Pitts. Don’t ever cross me.”