I took a slider to Deptford where Max had his penthouse. It was a warehouse conversion from the noughties, updated with screenwalls in one half and a glossy live-art installation on the roof terrace, editing itself in time with the sculptor’s orginal somewhere in cool Nicaragua. For my taste, rather kitsch and very visually noisy, but then I could always choose not to see it.
Max was lounging on a brown leather recliner with a glass of brandy in his hand. I could smell the grape-rot from the moment the door rolled heavily aside.
“Hey, Rafe, come on in! Pour yourself one!”
There was also an empty bottle of champagne by his foot on the rug. He had plainly been drinking Admiral’s flip – until the champagne within easy reach ran out.
“How much did we make last night,” I asked, sitting down opposite him.
“A lot,” he said. “Something like thirteen billion calories.”
“How many of those have you just drunk?”
He gave me a look like the look you’d give your younger brother when he told you to grow up. “Do you want to know or are you just pissed at me? I’m not pissed at you, Rafe, I’m just pissed. I’m pretty pleased with you, my golden goose.” He staggered around the heavy coffee table and tried to plant a kiss on my cheek.
“Just do the sobering thing,” I said. “I’m tired of this Max already.”
He shrugged and turned away. I heard a deep breath and watched him shudder, hard, as his gastros metabolised the alcohol far faster than his liver could. He turned around with a scowl. “For a guy who makes his living eating and drinking, you’re a pretty miserable species of hypocrite.”
“And for someone who makes a living by split-second statistics, you’re a lazy drunk.”
He laughed. “Maybe. But the difference is, I take time off. I know when to stop working.”
“Well not now,” I said. “Let’s get Bengt in. We have to think about what’s next.”
He shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You score one of the biggest spikes we’ve ever set up, all on the spur of the moment, all improvised out of your ice-cream dish and you can’t even relax about it for a single day.”
“We don’t have a day,” I replied. “Cornucopia’s move is in. They’re buying Scotch whisky. Distilleries. Brands. Supply channels. This morning.”
“Have a look,” I replied. I nodded him a spread of the current business reports. He went quiet and unfocused. I leant forward, shifted in the debris for an almost-clean glass and poured myself brandy, no ice, looked around for some soda water. None in sight. Scanned. None in the flat. Ordered some with my DoubleDiamond. It was really seeing the most action at the moment.
“Okay,” said Max slowly. “What does it mean?”
“Get Bengt on the big screen,” I said. “I don’t want to explain this twice.”
After the soda water droned in and I had poured it, we got Bengt live and began by replaying the data from last night’s escapade. Max had managed to continue trading into SBS until 9:20, after I’d decided we’d go for the spike. Every loose contract Bengt had been able to find over the previous few weeks had been exchanged, sometimes at considerable expense, for a new, shiny SBS contract. Their relative value had continued to rise, first well, then ridiculously as the commentary and live casts had streamed out of Eis, all rapturously reflecting Zahra Fukusawa’s performance and the intricate cleverness of the ice-cream. Then at 9:25 Max had begun to shift back out. Even those five minutes had seen a sizeable profit on every contract. The demand from interested consumers keep to stay tip-top and have the next big thing had spiralled up – and for every new consumer, Max just happened to have a contract they could purchase. Through a complicated system of blinds, of course.
By the time I posted at 9:53, Max and Bengt between them had exchanged more than three thousand contracts, most of which had been replaced with Cornucopia’s standard offerings in grades between four and eight. Bengt had managed to gain a brace of twenty-twos and Max had a higher average for his 2231 individual contracts. That was our equivalent of a profit of thirteen billion calories.
By the morning, Cornucopia’s rivals had all reacted one way or the other. Poor Tom, Dick and Harry on the street were now bought into contracts several months long with a deeply unfashionable and popularly unreliable consort. UDIT trading rules would stop most of them switching again for some time. Exactly the sort of rules that Bengt and Max were experts at breaking. Knowing that the relative value of a contract with SBS was now so low that they would struggle to fund any new launches, acquisitions or even a lifestyle drive in the near future, Monocle had moved back the launch of next week’s Chateau Pom Pom in Dakar, GruppoBimbo had extended their celebrations allowance for grades five to fifteen and Cornucopia had begun to buy whisky.
“That’s a significant outlay,” I said. “Look. That’s Grant, bought at asking price from Sabmil-Cocapep. The HighIsles Collection, also Sabmil. Distributors in Jordan, Poland, the Southern States, Scandi.”
“But who drinks whisky?” asked Bengt through the translator. The virtual voice did a fairly good job of being his Norwegian-accented echo, exactly twenty milliseconds after him. “Only old people.”
“No,” I said. “Not when Cornucopia match it with their Qualitas brand. They’re trying to broaden and heighten the grasp. It’s aspirational yupster marketing. Whisky, spirits, we’re going to see yoga mats, exercise bikes, the whole caboodle. Then Monocle – they’ve already got the cruise restaurants cornered. They’ll throw those in – you wait and see. We’ll see three new grades inserted somewhere in Gruppo’s hierarchy and more restaurant launches than you can shake a very shaky stick at. What it means is, the yupster war has only just begun. What it means is, good times are coming.”
Bengt and Max were on it. There was no need to steer Max away from the brandy now. He was projecting onto the tabletop where we could all see his hands weaving through information, piecing together a narrative of growth for us out of the vast market of eat or be eaten. Bengt spoke up. “Ok. So Max, find us some nodes. Rafe, switch that schedule over. Let’s concentrate on getting as much out of this as we can. We can leave the Eastern Europe plan for now.” I was glad of that. I’d been trying to talk them out of forcing me to go and eat a thousand varieties of borscht for the previous few months. “I’ll see what else I can rustle up in the twelve, fifteenth grades, London of course, Boston, all the yupster hubs. And tidy away most of these Cornucopias. Sell them back the German old people’s home somehow. Cleanse the trail. Keep me posted, brothers.” He winked out, and the giant wallscreen reverted to a view of Cambodian islands.
Bengt was a UDIT man. A bent UDIT man, of course, but then it seemed that they all were. In a world of apparent scarcity, in which an international regulatory body would oversee that everyone received their right to a sufficient nutrient and calorie intake and yet in which the fat cats were still fat and everyone else were still mice, how could they not be bent? They were lining their own pockets and their own bellies besides. They had to be. That was they way it worked. Bengt was no more dishonest in his position than everyone was.
He was a resurrectionist. His real job was to identify contracts that had fallen dormant, either because of unreported death, luddism or any of the many mistakes the system was prone to, and to report and close them. Which he did. But before putting them to sleep, he used them to wring a few more calories from the nutricorps who dictated everything to us.
Max was the statistician. He worked on turning the welter of noisy data into something that we could react to – and even, in a tiny way, guide. Watching the relative value of contracts with each of the many nutricorps, the popularity of one and the other.
Whereas I was the front line. I was the shark end of the wedge, the tooth on the tip of the open jaw of the shark at the front of the shoal. I used my intuition and knowledge to judge what was about to break big, which food was about to be the fad, which contract was going to be sought after. I could review, wheedle, manipulate and dictate. I had eaten in every country under the sun, eaten every cuisine and every style, knew where those cuisines came from, historically, chemically, who was innovating, who disrupting, who was winning, who was losing.
We were winning.
I was winning.
“So what do you think, Rafe,” asked Max. We had taken a break from the stats and the detail. “What’s your hunch?”
“The first tier will react,” I replied. “Sahi, SLM, McNestle, all of them. Sabmil-Cocapep, of course, once they see the pitch of the new yupster-grabbers.” SBS and its competitors were big, don’t get me wrong. Alliances and conglomerates that counted hundreds of companies within their bounds, with millions of subscribed dependents in countries across Western Europe and further afield. But the eight largest nutricorps and their subsidiaries provided nutrition and life-style for seventy-three percent of the world’s population. They had swallowed industries. They had swallowed nations. They had extinguished species and designed new ones. They were the world. To them, the three of us skimming a little floating cream were no more significant than a water-flea to a whale. They had been content to let the second-rates squabble. After all, what need had they to fight over yupsters when they had Malaysia? When they had the urban poor… Everywhere. When they had Mexico city, suckling at the teats of SafdieLandrieuMavrou and flourishing. When they had the factory cities of China and North Australia?
“I think they’ll do some outright grabbing,” I said. “Easy transfer rates, to get the floaters. Then some new supernovas – regain some ground. The young ones have been taking up a lot of media time. Knock them back.”
Max nodded. “I agree.”
“I’ll keep cycling through ontrend,” I said. “Hold my spot. But anything from one of the first tier will give us a real opening.”
He looked at me. “Nothing wonky,” he said. “You can’t play those sort of tricks with Sahi or McNestle.”
“We don’t need to,” I said. “We just time it right, I file a straight review. No monkey business.”
He looked at me sharply. “That’s exactly what I mean. You’re too easily distracted. We didn’t need to knock SBS last night. We could have uptraded anytime and still made a good profit. You just got carried away. In walks a pretty woman, you switch into performance mode.”
“I was very low-key,” I said, unable to stop my smile. Max knew me. We’d worked together long enough that he knew me.
“You know exactly what I mean. If you want to stir a bit more in the top tier, that’s fine by me. But we need to know when to pull out. And stay focused.”