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It wasn't so much of a question as a demand for an immediate explanation. The past two days had been regularly punctuated by such demands, thinly veiled as polite enquiries. Rocco Losi had descended into the cosy feather bed of Losi Construction like a panther leaping into a gathering of easy prey, intent on a kill.
Richard Newton glanced worriedly to where one long brown finger was pointing at a small entry on the printout and sighed.
'That's one of the subsids,' he explained, leaning forward to peer at the entry and then subsiding back into his chair with a feeling of doom.
'One of the subsids. Where's the paperwork relating to this particular subsid?' Rocco pushed his chair back and coolly contemplated the fair-haired man who seemed to be caught in a state of nervous agitation.
This exercise was proving to be a nightmare from hell and, as far as Rocco was concerned, the level of the executives only helped to aid and abet the impression. It was a marvel that his father's company managed to make the profits it did considering that a great majority of the chief executives were of the old-fashioned, jocular, verging-on-retirement type. Richard Newton, the accounts manager now perspiring in front of him, was one of the younger members of management and Rocco would hardly have called him cutting edge. In fact, the man wouldn't have lasted more than five seconds in his own corporate giant where dead wood was shed and under-per-formers were left in no doubt of their eventual fate, should change not be forthcoming.
But then the cut and thrust of life in NewYork's fast lane was considerably more savage than here, in Shakespeare's County.
Roccoplaced his hands flatly on the surface of his father's desk and enunciated his next few words with grim, measured brutality.
'Listen to me very carefully, Mr Newton. I don't want to be here. I have been compelled to leave my offices in New York because of events which have left me no choice. However, I am here now and I don't intend to give you all a perfunctory pat on the back and leave you to muddle along the way you appear to have always muddled along. I do not expect to have to ask any questions because I expect all the information I require on my father's company to be right here. In this room. Sitting on this desk. Waiting for me to look at. Do I make myself absolutely clear?'
Rocco Losi watched the man sitting opposite him nod weakly and felt not a scrap of compassion. He wasn't here to get a popularity award or to make friends. He was here to temporarily take charge of his father's company so that public confidence in it could be maintained until such time as he could depart these shores back to the city that had been his home for over ten years.
Nor was he prepared to do a surface job. That wasn't his style. He had come, albeit against his will, and he intended to turn over whatever stones were necessary to make sure that Losi Construction was performing to its highest possible level.
The file had been fetched and placed in front of him. Without bothering to look at him, Rocco informed Richard Newton that he was to remain precisely where he was until he had answered all questions to his personal satisfaction.
He took his time with the file, barely aware of the man patiently waiting for him to finish, then he sat back and looked at Richard Newton in silence for a few seconds.
'Explain to me where this particular subsidiary fits in with the general profit-making scheme of the company.' He linked his fingers casually together and waited. He had always felt that people, generally, underestimated the great virtue of silence. In his experience, there was nothing more persuasive when it came to getting a truthful answer than silence. It could be unnerving and quite deadly.
'Ah. Yes, well your father makes a healthy profit with his company. It's one of the most respected building firms in the area, you know. And with the boom in housing over the years, with no end in sight, well, as you can see from the general spreadsheets, things are doing quite nicely. More than quite nicely.'
Rocco watched this inexpert evasion of his question with hooded eyes. Nor did he encourage the meandering by saying a word. Instead, he glanced at his watch, then returned his attention to Richard Newton's flushed face.
'As for where it fits in with the profit-making well it doesn't. Not really. You probably don't understand how things work out here, Mr Losi. I mean, you're accustomed to a more aggressive type of environment, I guess '
'I'm looking for an answer in one sentence, Mr Newton. You are the chief accountant. Surely it cannot be that difficult.'
'This particular subsidiary is the goodwill arm of the firm, so to speak. Amy Hogan looks after it. You could say that she handles the equivalent of legal pro bono work. Your father was, is, very keen on the idea of giving back. Of course, Amy does handle profit-making work as well '
Rocco frowned. 'I thought I had met all the relevant personnel. The name rings no bells.'
'That's because she doesn't exactly work in this building. She has an office closer to Birmingham because she's on the move a lot of the time, overseeing things in the city centre.'
'What is her position in the company?'
'She's well, one of the executives '
'I believe I asked to interview all the executives.'
'Ah. Yes. You did. But she couldn't make it in yesterday '
'Because ?' Rocco's voice was ominous in its smoothness. 'Severe ill health, perhaps? Or was she out of the country?'
For a few seconds, Richard Newton seriously debated going for the severe ill health option. 'She said she was busy.'
'She. Said. She. Was. Busy.' Rocco was finding it a little difficult to believe his ears. He had made his orders perfectly clear from the very first moment he had stepped foot in the company. He was so accustomed to having his orders obeyed without question, and usually at the speed of light, that the idea of someone casually ignoring them because she was busy was very nearly beyond the realm of his understanding.
'Amy hardly ever stops!' Richard elaborated in a desperate attempt to avert the equivalent of a missile homing in ruthlessly onto its target, judging from the expression on Rocco's face. 'And right now she's working on a particularly big project '
'Would that be a particularly big non-profit-making project, by any chance?'
'Community centre on a sink estate in the city centre,' was the mumbled response.
Rocco felt his tightly reined-in patience begin to unravel. This was a highly unusual occurrence. In that rarefied place that he inhabited, where power and influence afforded him the luxury of utter self-assurance, stumbling blocks were things that he tackled with utmost cool. Hitches in multimillion-dollar deals did not rouse his impatience, merely his professional curiosity and intellectual interest. They cropped up occasionally and more often than not he simply sorted them out with his usual unerring precision.
The thought of some minor middle-management woman deliberately choosing to ignore his summons because she basically couldn't be bothered made him grit his teeth together in rising rage.
He leaned forward, elbows on the desk. 'Here is a little job for you, Mr Newton. You telephone Miss Hogan as soon as you walk out of this office and inform her that I will be paying her a little visit this afternoon. I will expect her to be waiting for me in her office, however busy she is, at precisely three o'clock. If she is not there, feel free to assure her that her head will most definitely be on the block.'
Richard Newton opened his mouth to state that dismissals of executives were taken to the board of directors, and closed his mouth before he could utter a word. This man did not play by the usual rules. He was a law unto himself and the gentlemanly codes of behaviour that had operated within the hallowed walls of Losi Construction would be brushed aside as minor irritations. He nodded and exited the room with a feeling of deep relief, leaving Rocco to broodingly ponder yet something else to deal with that he had not foreseen.
If he and his father had had any sort of ongoing communication between them, he would have arrived here with some expectation of what he was going to find. As it was, the feud that had driven him to make his fortune on the other side of the Atlantic meant that he had arrived in England with no knowledge of how his father's company operated or even whether it was successful or not.
He raked his fingers through his hair and buzzed his secretary in to arrange a driver to take him to wherever the Hogan woman's office was in the city centre. Then he proceeded to spend the remainder of the morning going through profit-and-loss columns, summoning up information on the computer, while maintaining contact with his own offices across the Atlantic via his own laptop computer.
He only broke off at two when he was interrupted by his secretary informing him that his driver was ready.
He didn't know what he had expected to find. Losi Construction was located on the outskirts of Stratford and was housed in an old period building that reeked of Old World elegance. It was as far removed from his own super-modern, innovative glass building in the heart of New York as chalk was from cheese.
At the back of his mind, he expected to find an office on a similar but smaller scale. Something Victorian, perhaps, with the high ceilings and understated elegance that he remembered from way back.
He was slightly taken aback when, after a slow drive out of the country into the myriad cluttered streets of the city, the driver finally pulled up outside something small, concrete and tacked onto a newsagent's in a parade of fairly disrepu-table-looking shops.
'Are you sure you have got the right place?' Rocco eyed the dodgy front with a frown. A little gang of youths was loitering in front of the off-licence, obviously having nothing better to do on a brilliant summer day than hang out in a threatening fashion.
'Of course, sir. I have often come to fetch Miss Hogan when her car is out of action.'
'A frequent occurrence, is it?'
'She's very fond of that little Mini,' Edward said neutrally, 'even though it plays up from time to time.'
Rocco grunted, barely hearing this piece of uninvited information. He pushed open the car door and slung his long, powerful body out, then he leant down to prop himself against the window. 'I will call you when I'm ready to be collected.'
Which, Rocco figured, would be in under an hour. He had no intention of going over any books with the woman. That could be done in the comfort of his father's office. No. He would simply prepare her for the possibility that all this community housing rubbish would come to a swift end should his father be unable to return to active work, leaving Rocco to take over to his satisfaction before he departed for New York. If the company wanted to donate to charitable causes, there were ways and means of doing just that, which would additionally bring in tax relief on the donations. Time, energy and manpower were to be spent on the profitable side of the business. Losi Construction was not an unofficial branch of the Samaritans.
With that objective firmly in his mind, Rocco pushed open the door to the office and stepped into a world he had not visited for a very long time indeed. The world of cheap furniture, threadbare carpets and seeming chaos. There was no reception area. Five desks were crammed into a room roughly half the size of his own office in New York and one entire wall was dominated by an intricate map of a housing estate, from an aerial view. Grimy windows had been flung open to allow some fresh air in and an overhead fan threatened to wreak havoc on any paperwork that wasn't securely weighted down.
In this alarmingly basic atmosphere work was, however, going on, although it immediately stopped the minute he walked in, with five pairs of eyes focusing on him with unconcealed interest. Three men and two women, all in their twenties. Two of the men wore their hair scraped back into ponytails and conversely the women had short cropped hairdos.
'I am looking for an Amy Hogan,' Rocco said, moving forward so that several more details in the room sprang into unfortunate prominence. Such as the notice-board propped against the wall at the back, with messages tacked over every square centimetre of its surface, the wire bins most of which were full, and a box of tools whose purpose he could only guess at.
'In the back.' One of the lads stepped forward and eyed Rocco suspiciously, putting out one hand when Rocco tried to head in the mentioned direction. 'Whoa! Where do you think you're going, mate?'
'I am here to see Miss Hogan.'
'And you are ?'
The hand dropped and there was a heightened sense of interest now.
'I have an appointment with Miss Hogan, in case she hasn't mentioned it.'
'Nope. She hasn't. How's your dad doing? Name's Freddy, by the way, mate. Soz about the lack of welcome mate, but you can't be too careful in these parts.' Freddy held out his hand, which was surprisingly firm when Rocco shook it.
'Off-licence was broken into a fortnight ago,' one of the cropped-haired women interjected. 'Three men just broke through the plate glass and hauled as much as they could, as cool as you like, never mind the alarm bells.'
'Took the coppers a good ten minutes to get here '
'By which time, they'd scarpered '
'Old Mr Singh was pretty shaken up about it '
'I see you've met my staff.' The voice was low, husky and threaded with amusement. Rocco looked up to see a woman standing in the doorway, dressed in the same casual style as everyone else seemed to be: jeans and a stripy teeshirt, with a pair of trainers. 'I'm Amy Hogan and you must be Antonio's son.'
The softening in her voice when she mentioned his father's name stirred something inside him and Rocco met her open smile with a gritted one of his own. Five feet four, if that, straight brown hair, wide-spaced brown eyes, sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of a short, straight nose.