Enjoy this free chapter from The Fourth Estate:
5 NOVEMBER 1991
Armstrong Faces Bankruptcy
The odds were stacked against him. But the odds had never worried Richard Armstrong in the past.
‘Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs. Place your bets.’
Armstrong stared down at the green baize. The mountain of red chips that had been placed in front of him twenty minutes earlier had dwindled to a single stack. He had already lost forty thousand francs that evening – but what was forty thousand francs when you had squandered a billion dollars in the past twelve months?
He leaned over and deposited all his remaining chips on zero.
‘Les jeux sont faits. Rien ne va plus,’ the croupier said as he flicked his wrist and set the wheel in motion. The little white ball sped around the wheel, before falling and jumping in and out of the tiny black and red slots.
Armstrong stared into the distance. Even after the ball had finally settled he refused to lower his eyes.
‘Vingt-six,’ declared the croupier, and immediately began scooping up the chips that littered every number other than twenty-six.
Armstrong walked away from the table without even glancing in the direction of the croupier. He moved slowly past the crowded backgammon and roulette tables until he reached the double doors that led out into the real world. A tall man in a long blue coat pulled one of them open for him, and smiled at the well-known gambler, anticipating his usual hundred-franc tip. But that wouldn’t be possible tonight.
Armstrong ran a hand through his thick black hair as he walked down through the lush terraced gardens of the casino and on past the fountain. It had been fourteen hours since the emergency board meeting in London, and he was beginning to feel exhausted.
Despite his bulk – Armstrong hadn’t consulted a set of scales for several years – he kept up a steady pace along the promenade, only stopping when he reached his favourite restaurant overlooking the bay. He knew every table would have been booked at least a week in advance, and the thought of the trouble he was about to cause brought a smile to his face for the first time that evening.
He pushed open the door of the restaurant. A tall, thin waiter swung round and tried to hide his surprise by bowing low.
‘Good evening, Mr Armstrong,’ he said. ‘How nice to see you again. Will anyone be joining you?’
The head waiter quickly guided his unexpected customer through the packed restaurant to a small alcove table. Once Armstrong was seated, he presented him with a large leather-bound menu.
Armstrong shook his head. ‘Don’t bother with that, Henri. You know exactly what I like.’
The head waiter frowned. European royalty, Hollywood stars, even Italian footballers didn’t unnerve him, but whenever Richard Armstrong was in the restaurant he was constantly on edge. And now he was expected to select Armstrong’s meal for him. He was relieved that his famous customer’s usual table had been free. If Armstrong had arrived a few minutes later, he would have had to wait at the bar while they hastily set up a table in the centre of the room.
By the time Henri placed a napkin on Armstrong’s lap the wine waiter was already pouring a glass of his favourite champagne. Armstrong stared out of the window into the distance, but his eyes did not focus on the large yacht moored at the north end of the bay. His thoughts were several hundred miles away, with his wife and children. How would they react when they heard the news?
A lobster bisque was placed in front of him, at a temperature that would allow him to eat it immediately. Armstrong disliked having to wait for anything to cool down. He would rather be burned.
To the head waiter’s surprise, his customer’s eyes remained fixed on the horizon as his champagne glass was filled for a second time. How quickly, Armstrong wondered, would his colleagues on the board – most of them placemen with titles or connections – begin to cover their tracks and distance themselves from him once the company’s accounts were made public? Only Sir Paul Maitland, he suspected, would be able to salvage his reputation.
Armstrong picked up the dessert spoon in front of him, lowered it into the bowl and began to scoop up the soup in a rapid cyclical movement.
Customers at surrounding tables occasionally turned to glance in his direction, and whispered conspiratorially to their companions.
‘One of the richest men in the world,’ a local banker was telling the young woman he was taking out for the first time. She looked suitably impressed. Normally Armstrong revelled in the thought of his fame. But tonight he didn’t even notice his fellow-diners. His mind had moved on to the boardroom of a Swiss bank, where the decision had been taken to bring down the final curtain – and all for a mere $50 million.
The empty soup bowl was whisked away as Armstrong touched his lips with the linen napkin. The head waiter knew only too well that this man didn’t like to pause between courses.
A Dover sole, off the bone – Armstrong couldn’t abide unnecessary activity – was deftly lowered in front of him; by its side was a bowl of his favourite large chips and a bottle of HP Sauce – the only one kept in the kitchen, for the only customer who ever demanded it. Armstrong absent-mindedly removed the cap from the bottle, turned it upside down and shook vigorously. A large brown blob landed in the middle of the fish. He picked up a knife and spread the sauce evenly over the white flesh.
That morning’s board meeting had nearly got out of control after Sir Paul had resigned as chairman. Once they had dealt with ‘Any Other Business’, Armstrong had quickly left the boardroom and taken the lift to the roof where his helicopter was waiting for him.
His pilot was leaning on the railing, enjoying a cigarette, when Armstrong appeared. ‘Heathrow,’ he barked, without giving a thought to clearance by air-traffic control or the availability of take-off slots. The pilot quickly stubbed out his cigarette and ran towards the helicopter landing pad. As they flew over the City of London, Armstrong began to consider the sequence of events that would take place during the next few hours unless the $50 million were somehow miraculously to materialise.
Fifteen minutes later, the helicopter landed on the private apron known to those who can afford to use it as Terminal Five. He lowered himself onto the ground and walked slowly over to his private jet.
Another pilot, this one waiting to receive his orders, greeted him at the top of the steps.
‘Nice,’ said Armstrong, before making his way to the back of the cabin. The pilot disappeared into the cockpit, assuming that ‘Captain Dick’ would be joining his yacht in Monte Carlo for a few days’ rest.
The Gulfstream took off to the south. During the two-hour flight Armstrong made only one phone call, to Jacques Lacroix in Geneva. But however much he pleaded, the answer remained the same: ‘Mr Armstrong, you have until close of business today to repay the $50 million, otherwise I will be left with no choice but to place the matter in the hands of our legal department.’
The only other action he took during the flight was to tear up the contents of the files Sir Paul had left behind on the boardroom table. He then disappeared into the lavatory and flushed the little pieces down the bowl.
When the plane taxied to a halt at Nice airport, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes drew up beside the steps. No words were exchanged as Armstrong climbed into the back: the chauffeur didn’t need to ask where his master wished to be taken. In fact Armstrong didn’t utter a word during the entire journey from Nice to Monte Carlo; after all, his driver was not in a position to lend him $50 million.
As the car swung into the marina, the captain of Armstrong’s yacht stood to attention and waited to welcome him on board. Although Armstrong had not warned anyone of his intentions, others had phoned ahead to alert the thirteen-man crew of Sir Lancelot that the boss was on the move. ‘But God knows to where,’ had been his secretary’s final comment.
Whenever Armstrong decided that the time had come for him to head back to the airport, his secretary would be informed immediately. It was the only way any of his staff around the world could hope to survive for more than a week.
The captain was apprehensive. The boss hadn’t been expected on board for another three weeks, when he was due to take a fortnight’s holiday with the rest of the family. When the call had come through from London that morning, the skipper had been at the local shipyard, supervising some minor repairs to Sir Lancelot. No one had any idea where Armstrong was heading, but he wasn’t willing to take risks. He had, at considerable expense, managed to get the yacht released from the shipyard and tied up at the quayside only minutes before the boss had set foot in France.
Armstrong strode up the gangplank and past four men in crisp white uniforms, all standing to attention and saluting. He slipped off his shoes and went below to the private quarters. When he pushed open the door of his stateroom, he discovered that others had anticipated his arrival: there were several faxes already piled up on the table beside his bed.
Could Jacques Lacroix possibly have changed his mind? He dismissed the idea instantly. After years of dealing with the Swiss, he knew them only too well. They remained an unimaginative, one-dimensional nation whose bank accounts always had to be in the black, and in whose dictionary the word ‘risk’ wasn’t to be found.
He began to flick through the sheets of curling fax paper. The first was from his New York bankers, informing him that when the market had opened that morning, the price of shares in Armstrong Communications had continued to drop. He skimmed the page until his eyes settled on the one line he had been dreading. ‘No buyers, only sellers,’ it stated clinically. ‘If this trend continues for much longer, the bank will be left with no choice but to consider its position.’
He swept all the faxes onto the floor, and headed for the little safe hidden behind a large framed photograph of himself shaking hands with the Queen. He swivelled the disk backwards and forwards, stopping at 10–06–23. The heavy door swung open and Armstrong placed both his hands inside, quickly removing all the bulky wads of cash. Three thousand dollars, twenty-two thousand French francs, seven thousand drachma and a thick bundle of Italian lire. Once he had pocketed the money, he left the yacht and headed straight for the casino, without telling any of the crew where he was going, how long he would be or when he might return. The captain ordered a junior rating to shadow him, so that when he made his way back towards the harbour they wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
A large vanilla ice cream was placed in front of him. The head waiter began to pour hot chocolate sauce over it; as Armstrong never suggested that he should stop, he carried on until the silver sauce-boat was empty. The cyclical movement of the spoon began again, and didn’t cease until the last drop of chocolate had been scraped off the side of the bowl.
A steaming black coffee replaced the empty bowl. Armstrong continued to gaze out over the bay. Once the word was out that he couldn’t cover a sum as small as $50 million, there wouldn’t be a bank on earth that would consider doing business with him.
The head waiter returned a few minutes later, and was surprised to find the coffee untouched. ‘Shall we bring you another cup, Mr Armstrong?’ he asked in a deferential whisper.
Armstrong shook his head. ‘Just the check, Henri.’ He drained his champagne glass for the last time. The head waiter scurried away and returned immediately with a folded slip of white paper on a silver salver. This was one customer who couldn’t abide waiting for anything, even the bill.
Armstrong flicked open the folded slip but showed no interest in its contents. Seven hundred and twelve francs, service non compris. He signed it, rounding it up to a thousand francs. A smile appeared on the head waiter’s face for the first time that evening – a smile that would disappear when he discovered that the restaurant was the last in a long queue of creditors.
Armstrong pushed back his chair, threw his crumpled napkin on the table and walked out of the restaurant without another word. Several pairs of eyes followed him as he left, and another was watching as he stepped onto the pavement. He didn’t notice the young rating scamper off in the direction of the Sir Lancelot.
Armstrong belched as he strode down the promenade, past dozens of boats huddled close together, tied up for the night. He usually enjoyed the sensation of knowing that the Sir Lancelot was almost certain to be the largest yacht in the bay, unless of course the Sultan of Brunei or King Fahd had sailed in during the evening. His only thought tonight was how much she might fetch when she was put up for sale on the open market. But once the truth was known, would anyone want to buy a yacht that had been owned by Richard Armstrong?
With the help of the ropes, Armstrong yanked himself up the gangway to find the captain and the first officer awaiting him.
‘We’ll sail immediately.’
The captain was not surprised. He knew Armstrong would not want to be tied up in port any longer than was necessary: only the gentle swaying of the boat could lull him to sleep, even in the darkest hours. The captain began issuing the orders to get under way as Armstrong slipped off his shoes and disappeared below.
When Armstrong opened the door of his stateroom he was met by yet another pile of faxes. He grabbed them, still hoping for a lifeline. The first was from Peter Wakeham, the deputy chairman of Armstrong Communications, who, despite the late hour, was obviously still at his desk in London. ‘Please call urgently,’ read the message. The second was from New York. The company’s stock had plummeted to a new low, and his bankers had ‘reluctantly found it necessary’ to place their own shares on the market. The third was from Jacques Lacroix in Geneva to confirm that as the bank had not received the $50 million by close of business, they had been left with no choice but to . . .
It was twelve minutes past five in New York, twelve minutes past ten in London, and twelve minutes past eleven in Geneva. By nine o’clock the following morning he wouldn’t be able to control the headlines in his own newspapers, let alone those owned by Keith Townsend.
Armstrong undressed slowly and allowed his clothes to fall in a heap on the floor. He then took a bottle of brandy from the sideboard, poured himself a large glass and collapsed onto the double bed. He lay still as the engines roared into life, and the ship began to manoeuvre itself out of the harbour.
Hour after hour slipped by, but Armstrong didn’t stir, except to refill the brandy balloon from time to time, until he heard four chimes on the little clock by the side of his bed. He pushed himself up, waited for a few moments and then lowered his feet onto the thick carpet. He rose unsteadily, and made his way across the unlit stateroom towards the bathroom. When he reached the open door, he unhooked a large cream dressing-gown with the words Sir Lancelot emblazoned in gold on its pocket. He padded back towards the door of the cabin, opened it cautiously and stepped barefoot into the dimly-lit corridor. He hesitated before locking the door behind him and slipping the key into his dressing-gown pocket. He didn’t move again until he was sure he could hear nothing except the familiar sound of the ship’s engine droning below him.
He lurched from side to side as he stumbled down the narrow corridor, pausing when he reached the staircase which led up onto the deck. He then slowly began to climb the steps, clutching firmly onto the rope on both sides. When he reached the top he stepped out onto the deck, checking quickly in both directions. There was no one to be seen. It was a clear, cool night, no different from ninety-nine in every hundred at that time of year.
Armstrong padded silently on until he was above the engine room – the noisiest part of the ship.
He waited only for a moment before untying the cord of his dressing-gown and allowing it to fall to the deck.
Naked in the warm night, he stared out into the still black sea and thought: isn’t your whole life meant to flash before you at a time like this?