(Defence Images [CC / Flickr])
Carrie hated conferences. She could just about cope with dozing through presentations, but she dreaded the evening socials. Looking cheerful while surrounded by strangers had never been in her job description.
She could stand in a corner with a glass of white wine for a couple of hours if it kept the management happy, if only because she’d given up resenting managers who didn’t understand what she did. It was working until she saw the man in the cheap suit approaching her, smiling as if he was about to talk to her.
“Hello there,” he said.
Carrie replied with something between a grunt and a ‘hi’, which usually discouraged people while falling just short of being rude.
“I have to ask you, why are you holding a white wine when you’d rather be drinking this?” He handed her a glass of rosé.
She didn’t take it.
“Let me take a wild guess,” he said. “You’ve taken a white wine because you don’t like it, so you won’t be tempted to drink it. If you drink it, you’ll be standing there with an empty glass and someone might offer to replace it as a conversation opener. To avoid that, you’ll have to go to the table and take another wine glass, but the table is surrounded by people who might talk to you. Not being the sociable type, you’ve found that a full glass of wine is the best defence against people like me who might talk to you.”
Carrie frowned but said nothing. Frowning came easily to her. Knowing how to answer a man who appeared to have read her mind did not.
“It hasn’t worked this time,” he said. “I am talking to you, so you may as well drink something you like while you put up with me. May I?”
She didn’t resist as he took the untouched white wine from her hand, and she took the rosé to replace it. She didn’t know what else to do.
“May I show you something?” he asked.
Carrie shrugged. She couldn’t see a polite way to get rid of him.
He led her to one of the tables covered with cheap nibbles in expensive-looking bowls, and pointed to a bowl of green olives. “I asked the staff to prepare that for you.”
She looked at him closely. How did he know?
“Another wild guess: you like olives. Especially green ones. But you’re put off by seeing green and brown ones mixed in together.”
Right again. But she wasn’t going to say so. “What gives you that idea?”
“Call it intuition.”
Carrie didn’t touch the olives. “And can you intuit anything else about me?”
“Well, let me see.” He steepled his fingers in a parody of contemplation. “You’re a software engineer. A very good one. You’re not paid what you’re worth because you’re not good at negotiations and you don’t like the idea of changing companies. You’re frustrated with managers who tell you what to do without understanding it – but don’t count that, it’s true of every software engineer who ever typed a line of code. You’re single and quite happy with that. Your favourite restaurant here in Cheltenham is Gianni’s. How am I doing?”
“Not bad until the end. I’ve never been to Cheltenham before and I don’t know any restaurants.”
“My mistake.” His smile broadened. “I was getting ahead of myself. I meant it will be your favourite as soon as you try it, and it certainly will be if you compare it with anywhere else. But the point is that I’ve got your attention, so you’re disposed to say yes when I suggest we get out of here and put Gianni to the test.”
“Why do you want my attention?”
“Because I need to recruit a software engineer of your calibre, and I’ll pay you what you’re worth. It’ll only be the three of us so if I can’t promise to be a good manager, I can at least promise to be the only one you’ll have to deal with.”
“What kind of business?”
“A dating site.”
Carrie had to laugh. “Do you know how many dating sites there are out there? You’ll be lucky to last six months.”
“I expect we’ll last a lot longer than that, and I’ve just shown you why. We’re going for an entirely different business model. Everyone else matches two people. We won’t be doing that. We’ll be supplying one person with the information they need to approach the person they want to date. We’ll tell them everything they need to know from the first conversation to…well, to more intimate preferences. Our client gets the information they need and the other person will thank providence that a lover who is so well attuned to them simply dropped from the sky.”
“I see,” Carrie nodded. “And I’m guess that it’s no coincidence that you’re based here in Cheltenham.”
The man’s smile touched his eyes this time. “Yes, you’re the right person for this job all right. Not that I had any doubts.”
“The third person you mentioned – I’m guessing this would be his second job.”
“It would. His tastes are rather more expensive than a government salary can supply, even for a man with a high-level clearance at GCHQ. His thinking is that if he can access any phone or computer in the country, why not make use of it?
“You have a point,” said Carrie. “This country will need that sort of entrepreneurial spirit with Brexit looming over us.”
“Quite. Now I’ve demonstrated the technique, I hope I have your attention. Perhaps we can discuss specifics over dinner at Gianni’s. If you don’t like it, you’ll know I’m a fraud.”
Carrie thought about it. It sounded better than standing in a corner with a glass of wine she didn’t like. “Let’s talk business.”