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Friday short story time: "The Big Handshake"

This Friday story came to me remarkably easily, so it’ll probably either be brilliant or forgettable. Not sure. I think it might be somewhat of an inside joke, to be honest, but we’ll see.

And if you like it (or any of the others), you can still buy the anthology containing my 12,000 word piece “Blood Will Stream”, of which more details here. Or you can read the entire Friday story archives for free as ever.

The Big Handshake

By Nick Bryan

‘To Joseph Holtz!’

Nearly a hundred glasses clinked in unison, and Joe almost recoiled. No-one else seemed surprised, so he felt weird about complaining, but that was one hell of a noise. Joe didn’t even drink, so why was it a problem for only him?

‘The most successful mediator in company history! Brokered more and bigger deals in ten years than I have in my life!’ The old guy, Joe’s departmental father figure since he started as coffee bitch, grinned warmly. ‘And he’s made us so much money that I’m not even jealous!’

His colleagues swivelled nearly two hundred eyes in his direction, and someone at the back shouted ‘Speech!’ He felt himself blushing, even before the full horror set in. The big deal had gone through without a hitch, and this event had been called, he’d thought, for the bosses to congratulate everyone on their hard work.

Yet, oddly, it seemed to be centred on shy Joe Holtz. Had they planned this? Surely not? He knew damn well that other people had worked their backsides off on this from the very start, and they deserved their credit.

So, he realised, that was what he should say. Holding his glass of lemonade tightly, even self-conscious about the fact he hadn’t thought to use a champagne flute for appearance’s sake, he stepped forward into the throng and opened his mouth to address the huge conference room. Oh, he thought to himself, if I could just get a few minutes to prepare.

To his eternal thanks, a junior lackey, who hadn’t been important enough to attend, dashed into the room, wrenching the doors back on their hinges and killing the revelry stone dead. ‘Hey! Stop! They’re back!’

Everyone, including Joe, just stared. The old guy was the one to take control, even after half a glass of bubbly. ‘Okay boys, take them into a meeting room, tell them our best man,’ and he gave Joe a knowing look, ‘will be in shortly.’

‘Okay,’ the panicked kid nodded, ‘but they’re pretty angry, sir.’

‘We’re on it, m’boy.’ The old guy gave an avuncular smile and shooed him away, before curtly beckoning Joe to the door.

A moment later, Joe’s head spinning from all that citrus and sugar, they were swooping down the corridor to meet the apparently enraged client.

‘Sir,’ Joe began, hesitantly, ‘could you stall them for a few seconds?’

‘Oh, not this again…’

‘I know, but I’ve not done a meeting without preparing for years, I think I need it to perform without twitching or…’

‘Joe, come on.’ The old guy slapped him paternally on the shoulder blades, forcing a little cough out. ‘I know you can do this. You don’t need to slip off to the toilet for a line of coke, or whatever it is you always do.’

‘But it’s become a ritual, and I’d really rather…’

‘Kid, the client is angry. Get in there, seal the deal, and I promise I’ll get you twice the prep time for the next time. Okay?’ The friendly twinkle remained, but above it, a frown creased his brow, making it a bit sinister.

And Joe knew he didn’t have a choice. ‘Sure thing, sir.’ He gave a confident grin that felt about as sincere as that speech he’d never given. ‘Let’s do it.’

He entered the meeting room by knocking the doors open with a flourish, something he never usually bothered with. That was the first clue that something was wrong; the great Joseph Holtz was overcompensating.

There were other clues too, the biggest of which came at the end when the clients refused his terms, got up and left the room, his whole negotiation in tatters.

An hour or so later, everyone else was back at their desks, their faith in his magical powers bitterly shaken. Joe himself was at the site of the party, finishing off the soft drinks. He’d mixed coke and lemonade, living right there on the edge, but not once did he consider turning to alcohol. It wasn’t worth it.

‘Kid,’ the old guy had been surprisingly philosophical about it, ‘these things happen, you lose sometimes. You’ve won bigger deals than that, we’ll live.’

Joe couldn’t think of a worthwhile reply, so tried to express his gratitude by nodding.

‘But I gotta ask, Joseph, what’s the preparation all about?’

For some reason, he hadn’t been expecting that, so managed only a expulsion of ‘Huh?’.

‘Well, y’know, I’ve been letting it be for years, you gotta do what you gotta do, and maybe this one’s my fault a bit for not buying you the time you needed. But seriously, kid, what’s it all about?’

‘Oh,’ Joe weighed it up, but decided, in the end, fair enough, ‘I pray. Nothing special. No drugs. I just sit in an empty room and pray.’

‘Huh.’ The old guy nodded. ‘Yeah, I can see why you didn’t want that getting around some of the younger guys.’

‘Thank you.’

‘So,’ he continued after a beat, ‘is that what the whole teetotal thing is about? Some kinda religious stuff?’

‘Oh, no.’ Joe grinned to himself. ‘I got very drunk a few times in uni, vomited on a girlfriend and just, y’know. Had enough.’

‘That’s much better.’ And, with one final approving nod, the old guy slapped him on the back again and wandered off. All told, Joe thought, that had been a vast improvement on giving a speech.

So, copyright me, do not steal, email me to discuss any issues that emerge as a result of this story. And do consider buying that anthology with my story, you can get the PDF for three quid and I think it’s quite good.


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