An excerpt from

The Serendipity Foundation

Sam Smit

PROLOGUE:

TWO NEGOTIATIONS


The Crest Voyager Hostage Crisis

The Boardroom of GoldBlue Oil, The City of London,

July 2011

“This will be the hardest conversation you’ve ever had. Remember, no matter what they say, it’s not your responsibility. You won’t be killing the hostages. They will be.”

Richard looked away from the negotiator, up at the grainy photographs of his five employees. The pixilation robbed them of their present tense, as if destined for tomorrow’s papers: obituary portraits for those caught up in tragedy.

“So, is everybody happy with how we’re going to play this?” The negotiator paced at the head of the boardroom table. His ex-military realism consoled GoldBlue’s executives- convincing them that five lives would be a sad but necessary sacrifice for the protection of principles. It was easier to romanticize martyrdom when you weren’t the martyr.

Opposite Richard was the new Foreign Minister, Michael Reyburn. Two advisors sat either side, ushering their fledgling minister away from voicing the concerns written all over his face. Richard imagined him better suited to a post in Youth and Sports. His anxiety was foregrounded against a panorama of The City from the thirty-third floor. Such scale quickly showed up those who weren’t comfortable with it.

Richard scanned the table. His eight board members looked more enthralled than nervous, having relinquished their moral responsibility to him.

The phone rang. The negotiator looked around the table and nodded, before one of his team picked up the phone and placed it on loudspeaker.

“Hello.”

“Who is this?”

“I’m the lead negotiator for GoldBlue Oil. My name is…”

“Give me the CEO. Put on Richard Pounder.” The male voice had a light Nigerian accent. It was deep and deliberate, betraying no signs of tension. Ted Monroe, the chairman, nodded to Richard.

“This is Richard Pounder.”

“Good, good. Richard. I like your voice. Powerful. Authoritative. You practice with your negotiator? Give first impression that you won’t be bullied?”

He looked at the negotiator, who shook his head, silently mouthing to Richard to stay silent. Deep laughter came through the speakers.

“It’s OK Richard. No need to look at negotiator each time I ask a question. Tell me, who else is in the room with you?”

Richard instinctively looked up. The negotiator pointed to his team, Monroe, and two other directors, bypassing the panicked Reyburn.

“There’s me, a three man negotiating team, and three of my board members.” He was met by a few seconds of silence.

“Richard, you need to be honest with me. Put the minister on.”

“What minister?”

“You think I’m an idiot Richard? You’re a big British company and I’ve got five British hostages. Put the minister on.”

The ministerial advisors shook their heads at Richard before glaring at Reyburn. The negotiator had warned them they would have to be strong and stick to what they had agreed on. Government anonymity was high up the list.

“In front of me, I have five men. They’re on their knees. They are yours. And there are two other men with guns. They are mine. I will count to three by which time the minister will say hello, or we shoot them. One…”

The advisors urgently gesticulated with Reyburn, jotting notes on pads.

“I promise you, there really is no minister here with us,” said Richard.

“Two…”

The advisors stared intently at Reyburn, who closed his eyes and covered his face with his right hand. They heard the intake of breath from the speaker. “Th…”

“I’m here. This is the foreign secretary Michael Reyburn.”

His advisors shook their heads. The negotiator turned his back and stroked his hair. The others watched on transfixed.

“Welcome Minister. I commend your humanity. The others in the room will call it weakness. Tell me Richard, are you angry at your minister?”

Richard looked at the negotiator, who mouthed, “take control” with a clinched fist. Richard nodded and took a deep breath.

“Enough of these games. You arranged this call because you wanted to negotiate. So let’s focus on that. You’ve asked GoldBlue to abandon drilling on our rigs in the Niger Delta. I think we all know that’s imposs…” Laughter interrupted him mid-sentence.

“Richard, Richard. When did I say we wanted to negotiate?”

Ashen faces turned towards the negotiator, who paused out of concern rather than strategy.

“Let me guess… you were waiting for us to come back with something a little more… reasonable?” came the voice.

The negotiator nodded his head tentatively.

“You seem to know a lot about how we’d react,” said Richard. “You know it’s impossible for me to pull my company out of an area overnight that has billions invested in it.”

“Come Richard. You have your rules of the game. Your procedures. Stories you tell yourself. But the stories I tell myself cannot live alongside yours. I see our children die from pollution from your rigs, from starvation by your theft, from murder through your collusion with power. For me, unreasonable is asking for what you think is reasonable.”

The room was silent. Richard no longer looked at the negotiator.

“Imagine you are me. Is it unreasonable to try to rid yourself from the cancer that is killing everything around you?”

Richard sunk his head into his hands. With his eyes closed, the voice reverberated through the imagined darkness of his body.

“Tell me,” the voice becoming louder and impatient. “I repeat, am I being unreasonable? As one human being to another, tell me.”

“I… I.” As Richard stumbled, the negotiator strode urgently to the intercom system and switched off the microphone.

“Mr Pounder… Richard. Look at me. I know this is hard. I do. But remember what we talked about. You aren’t negotiating with him. Don’t let him engage you like this. Take a step back and start…”

“Your negotiator telling you to take charge, Richard? Here’s something for you to discuss. Unless you tell me it’s your company that’s unreasonable, I’ll shoot them right now. I need to hear you take responsibility. You have one minute.”

Richard took in the room. The once familiar corporate art, the plasma screens and whiteboards, coffee cups and assorted biscuits offered no comfort now.

“They’re words…they’re just fucking words,” said Richard to no one in particular, the mic still muted. “You can’t risk the lives of five men for a few meaningless words.”

“But they’re not just words, are they?” said Monroe, calmly, as if unaware of the timeframe. “They would be words undermining our reason for being.” He had a confrontational drawl, contrasting sharply with his small, ageing frame. “Start allowing the story of what we are to become complicated…it all falls down. The company has its own ethics, Richard, which override our own. We are not the problem. Humanity is, and we’re a necessary product of it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” shouted Richard.

A seething silence descended, every heartbeat marking a step nearer the abyss.

“Thirty seconds,” came the voice.

Monroe leaned forward and took a sip of water. “These words mean nothing. I don’t hear a deal here. Meanwhile they’ll know we’re chicken-shit. You really think they’re serious? They’re going to kill the hostages, just like that? They’re the same as all these other motherfuckers who ring on in thinking the world gives a shit about them, and we offer them a few hundred thousand and ride off into the sunset. This is the first play of a long game, and we stay strong. Gimme a show of hands. Who’s with me on this?”

They looked to their stricken board members. All, tentatively, raised their hands.

“And you, Minister?”

Reyburn, his hands visibly shaking, stared at the table, unable to square their consensus with his own instincts. “Surely we need to view this as a way to buy more time,” he said. “How can we be debating something so trivial, based on your hunch that they’re bluffing?”

Several board members shuffled uncomfortably in their seats, the others tried to avoid making eye contact.

“May I clarify,” one of Reyburn’s advisors said nervously, “that the government is not party to this negotiation, and our presence cannot be used as an endorsement of any decision taken here.”

Monroe nodded.

“Ten seconds.”

No one said anything, not wishing to undermine the fragile resolve of the group- one many would later deny sharing.

“So Richard. It’s down to you and me now. The others don’t care. Tell me you are the problem. I need to hear it now.”

Richard could feel the eyes of the room upon him. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We can work this out. Just give us a bit more time.”

“We’re not bluffing Richard. We’re not fucking bluffing. You can stop this.”

Richard covered his face with his hands, unable to think. “Please, you don’t need to do this.”

“Is there anybody there willing to stand up for these men?” came the voice angrily. All eyes were on Reyburn, who in that brief moment shrank in surrender to the deafening silence.

“Very well”, shouted the man. “You’ve made your decision, now live with the consequences.”

Five shots rang out. The phone went dead.