Chapter 5

The Secretary

The interrogation of the man who had been piloting the skyrover when we crashed revealed some interesting information.

The pilot was actually a registered private detective and he had been hired by a Gerald Hawtry to find a boy with the surname Menier. Hawtry claimed to be a businessman and said he was looking for the son he believed his estranged sister had given birth to some fourteen years earlier. The sister had died recently, and Hawtry wanted to find the boy so he could provide for him.

The private detective did some checking and found that ‘Gerald Hawtry’ was a false name. He also found, through contacts, that there was no birth record for a Menier of the right age. Those two pieces of information made him suspicious, and he jumped to the conclusion that the boy Hawtry was looking for was someone important.

“He struck it lucky when he found you mentioned in an online news site,” the chief interrogator told me. “You had won an essay-writing competition, and there was an article about you that included a photo.”

I nodded. “I remember that; it was only a couple of years ago.” I chuckled. “It was a big day at the orphanage when the reporter and photographer turned up to interview me.”

“So, now that he knew your name and the fact that you lived at the orphanage, the private detective engaged some guys associated with his firm to, er, help him. You know what happened next.

“After some days it became obvious the helpers weren’t making any progress, so the detective took over himself. When you couldn’t give answers to his questions he decided to fly you around the city in the hope that you would remember where you used to live.”

He paused, and his face took on a serious look.

“There is one important piece of information I haven’t given you. Gerald Hawtry was not his real name, but closed circuit camera images from the cafe where they met show that the man who hired the detective was Errol Daventry, your company secretary.”

Whoa! That was unexpected.

* * *

The IG interrogators were convinced that the private detective was telling the truth. So, where to now? The emperor, the head interrogator and I discussed our options. The obvious next step was to question the secretary, but what would be the best approach? We were throwing ideas around when I had a brainwave.

“Why don’t I interview him? I wanted to meet him, anyway, but if I turn up unexpectedly his reaction might reveal whether he had good or bad intentions in searching for me. I think I would lean towards good, since he was trying to find me—unless he wanted to, uh, get rid of me.” I shuddered. That was an unpleasant thought.

“On balance, I think it looks like he did have good intent,” the emperor said. “As far as we can tell he had no involvement in the corruption, and he’s been running the company well for ten years.” He thought for a few moments. “I think you might be right, Echo. If you meet with him and we watch while you question him we might pick up something.”

About an hour later the secretary was escorted into a small meeting room in the interrogation unit. I was sitting at one end of the small table. The guard told him to sit at the other end and we were ready to begin. Never having been in such a situation before I was rather nervous, especially since I knew that we were being observed, but it seemed to me that the secretary was even more nervous. He glanced at me, probably wondering why a kid was in the room with him, and then sat with his head bowed. He looked broken, even to me, and I had no experience of dealing with people. His face was pale and drawn. His hair was dishevelled and it looked like he hadn’t shaved for several days.

“Mr Daventry,” I began. The secretary’s head shot up and he gazed at me for several long seconds. I thought I saw recognition, and then hope, in his expression.

“Lucien?” he almost whispered. “Lucien Döhm?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“You’re alive…” It wasn’t quite a question, but it wasn’t a definite statement, either.

I nodded.

“Your parents…”

He trailed off, so I answered the question I guessed he wanted to ask.

“They died when the spaceship disappeared ten years ago, as far as I know.”

“Oh.” His shoulders slumped.

“Mr Daventry,” I began again. “I know what the authorities believe you have done and why you were arrested. I would like to hear your side of the story.”

He nodded. He opened his mouth to speak then cleared his throat. He opened his mouth again but nothing came out.

I got up and poured two glasses of water from a carafe that had been placed on a sideboard. There was also a plate of biscuits, so I offered the secretary one as I placed a glass in front of him. Taking my own glass and a biscuit I returned to my seat.

After a couple of false starts the secretary began his story. His voice grew stronger as his confidence returned.

“Two weeks after your parents vanished, I began to receive directives via the Döhm Corporation information network. The instructions they contained related to the running of the corporation.

“They were not signed, nor did they give any indication of who sent them, but they came from someone who evidently knew the corporation inside out. It was unconventional, to say the least.

“Eventually, I came to the conclusion that your parents were still alive because no one else would have had such intimate knowledge of the corporation’s affairs. Why they would contact me in that way I didn’t know, but I became convinced that Lukas and Rosalie were sending the instructions.

“I tried to trace the source of the communications but was unable to do so. The route they followed was convoluted and the messages were passed through numerous relay points, each of which ‘spoke’ only to the one immediately after it. The channels were set up so that any attempt to route a message in reverse shut down the whole chain. When a new message came it was via a new route with new relays.”

The secretary received directives roughly every two weeks unless there was a crisis, or a particular strategic decision needed to be made. In that event they arrived as frequently as they were needed.

The mystery messages, together with his own knowledge of the company, and his managerial expertise, kept the company focused and prosperous.

“My only regret,” he told me, “is that I made a huge error when I employed a subterfuge to avoid winding up the company.”

“The bogus Lucien,” I said, quietly.

“Yes.” He hung his head for a few moments, then looked up at me. ”Lucien, I-I never intended to deceive anybody. I just wanted to buy time.

“After the messages began to arrive and I became more and more convinced that Lukas and Rosalie were sending them, I thought it would only be a matter of time before they turned up and resumed control. I had to preserve the company until that happened. Winding it up would not have been in their best interests, nor those of all the people who work for and depend on the Döhm Corporation.”

I nodded. I liked what I was hearing but I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. I wanted him to tell me in his own words without any prompting from me. I didn’t want to accidentally put words into his mouth or give him ideas that might serve to conceal the truth.

“So, I found a young boy of the right age who had no parents or other relatives and no connection with the company or with me, and passed him off as you.”

He shook his head. “It seemed like a good plan, but it turned out to be a bad decision, at least in some ways. It meant I was able to save the company but the boy is not capable of taking your place. He’s just not up to it.”

When he continued his eyes were moist. “He’s a lovely kid, and he’s bright and capable, but he has absolutely no interest in a corporate career.”

I nodded again. On that point I felt some empathy. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a corporate career.

“Yoso—that’s his real name; he refused to answer to Lucien right from the start—is a dreamer. He is a talented painter and an accomplished pianist and composer. He simply does not want anything to do with DöhmCorp. He was clever enough to work out some years ago that he’s not the heir to the company and he flatly refuses to even entertain the idea of becoming involved in it.”

He paused to take a drink. “When it became obvious that Yoso was not going to cooperate with my plans I racked my brains trying to figure out a way out of the mess I got myself into by pretending he was you. Your parents hadn’t turned up—although I was still receiving directives about the running of the company—and, although I had tried, I could not find any trace of Lukas or Rosalie. There was an inquest into the explosion but it wasn’t very helpful because whatever happened took place in space and there were no witnesses. It wasn’t even clear that there was an explosion. All anyone really knew was that the spacecraft did not arrive home as scheduled, and nothing had been heard of any of those on board since that day.”

He shook his head again. “But nothing I could think of was even remotely likely to succeed. Until I thought of looking for you again. I had tried to find you when your parents first disappeared—with no success, obviously—but then a few weeks ago I had a sudden revelation. I had gone into your parents’ office at DöhmCorp to talk to them. It must sound stupid, but I did that occasionally. Being in their office made me feel closer to them.” His eyes moistened. “I really miss them, you know.

“Anyway, I noticed a book sitting on a side table. It was a history of a French company that had for several generations made a famous brand of chocolates. The title was Echoes from the past: Menier memories. I was walking out of the room when an old memory popped into my mind. Menier folded more than a hundred years ago, but it had been a family-owned company and I remembered your mother telling me that she was of French descent, and related to the Meniers. Suddenly the penny dropped. If your parents had hidden you away somewhere, fearing for your safety, they might have given you a false name, and Menier seemed logical. I was furious with myself. So many years had passed and all the time you might have been somewhere close by. I decided to look for a boy named Menier.”

The secretary shook his head. “Again, I made a bad decision.” He looked straight at me, and I decided he was sincere when he spoke again. “Lucien, I’m truly sorry if those people hurt you. The private detective was supposed to find you and report back to me, but I never heard from him after the initial contact. I’m told that they kidnapped you and that they more or less tortured you.” He paused. “I’m truly sorry,” he said again. “Obviously, I hired the wrong firm. Instead of making discreet enquiries and simply reporting their findings, they took matters into their own hands. I can only surmise that they did some investigating of their own, and decided that acting independently would bring them better rewards than merely working for me.” After a pause, he added, “I heard about the boy missing from the orphanage—that story was all over the news—but I didn’t make the connection. Had I done so I would have contacted the authorities.”

I nodded. Almost everything he had said so far gelled with the picture we had already built up. Only the information about the electronic messages and the Menier connection was new. Again, I couldn’t help thinking that at least one of my parents had a quirky sense of humour: it seemed that I really was an echo from the past! Nothing Errol Daventry told me seemed out of place and nothing jarred. I was convinced he was telling me the truth.

“And what were you going to do if you found me?”

His eyes widened. “Well, naturally, I would have needed to confirm your identity. Then I would have talked to you to find out what you wanted to do, and I would have stepped down from my position and left the company. After all, apart from the initial attempt after your parents disappeared I had waited more than nine years before I tried to find you, and I had operated the company under false pretences. You would have had—do have—every right to prosecute me.”

“What about the messages you have been receiving, though? Do you think they infer some sort of approval of your actions, at least as far as operating the company goes?”

He looked bewildered. “Yes, perhaps they do. Whoever was communicating with me was apparently satisfied with my work, or at least tolerated me as long as I carried out their instructions.”

“Did anyone else at DöhmCorp know about the messages?”

“No. They were delivered directly to me, and I never shared them with the other executives.”

“Was anyone else at DöhmCorp aware of your, um, deception with the replacement heir? Or involved in it with you?”

“No, I acted alone. No one at the company knows, and the couple who care for Yoso believe he is the closest living Döhm relative.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I’ve wished I had involved others, then I would not have been carrying the burden of the deception alone.” He paused to take a drink. “It has taken a toll, and the last few months in particular have been very stressful.” He looked at me and shook his head again. “You know, I didn’t even tell my wife, and that led to stress in our relationship, and an additional burden I had to carry.”

I smiled. “The procurator’s office has actually advised DöhmCorp that you are suffering from stress and that your doctor has advised you to take at least a week’s rest. The message was delivered to your personal assistant using your communicator so that it appeared to come from you. We needed a story to explain your absence.”

The secretary chuckled mirthlessly. “It was a pretty accurate story.”

“Is the company in good hands for the time being? Will your absence cause problems?”

“The executives are an excellent team. They are all competent and capable. Although each is nominal head of a department, in reality they share the workload and collectively they cover every aspect of the company’s operations. You might like to know that they were all appointed to their present positions by your father and mother, and they are all very loyal to DöhmCorp. So, yes, the company is in good hands, and they don’t need me for day-to-day operations.”

“Thank you. That gives me some time to decide on a course of action.”

It was time to end the interview. “Mr Daventry, I need to speak with my advisers before I make any decisions about the company or any action I take against you. I am sorry we need to keep you in custody, but I will ensure that you are as comfortable as possible and that you are treated well.

“I have no desire to seek revenge. As far as I am concerned it is more important that I understand what has happened. I will probably need to speak with you again, and I’ll try to keep you informed so you’re not left wondering what is going on.”

He nodded. “Thank you, Lucien. That is all I could ask.”

* * *

“He seems broken,” I said. I was sitting in the emperor’s office in the secretariat. Also present were my other advisers and the head interrogator. “He just doesn’t seem like he would be capable of running DöhmCorp.”

“Well, for ten years he concealed the true state of affairs. That alone must have caused a huge amount of stress,” the emperor said. “He must have been in constant fear of being found out. For some time he has had an imposter who refused to cooperate with his plans, forcing him to try and find a way out of that situation. In addition to that he had instructions that he believed were coming from someone who is presumed to be dead. Then, to cap it all off, you turn up to interview him. Now he will be wondering what you might do to him. Add all those things together and I’m sure he is feeling overwhelmed at the moment. He is obviously a competent executive, though, or the company would not be in such good shape today.”

“So, where to now?” I asked.

“Well, I suggest you take things slowly,” the emperor said. “There’s no need to rush. You have the conference with the executives tomorrow, and you might also like to talk with Yoso before you make any major decisions.”

The Executives

The four executives arrived together and were ushered into the conference room after being issued their ID bracelets. None expressed any concern when asked to empty their pockets of communicators and other electronic devices, nor did any of them object when asked to leave their attaches in an ante room. I was watching everything on monitors in a media booth attached to the conference room. It’s going pretty well so far, I thought, when their arrival went so smoothly.

After they entered the conference room I was able to watch through an observation mirror in the media booth wall. I could hear what was said through the sound feed. The secretariat staff seated the executives and served refreshments, then engaged them in conversation with the idea of easing any suspicions they might have. We thought this would help us to be alert to any odd reactions during the meeting.

The procurator arrived and introductions took place, after which he called the meeting to order.

“We asked you here today to discuss some matters of grave importance to both Döhm Corporation and the federation,” he began. “You will be aware that the company secretary has not been at work this week.” The executives nodded.

“Yes, his PA informed us he had decided over the weekend to take a few days off. We’re expecting him back on Monday,” one of the executives said. I recognised him as Riccardo Moretti, nominally the head of the finance division.

“I’m afraid he will not return on Monday,” the procurator replied. Four faces took on surprised looks. The procurator was following the script on which we had agreed, the one that included the IG’s initial suspicions about the secretary. We wanted to observe the reactions of the executives. “He was detained at the weekend for possible complicity in a conspiracy to defraud the federation.”

Each of the executives gasped. Moretti went to speak but the procurator held up a hand. “Please bear with me,” he said, “and I will explain.”

Four heads nodded.

The procurator went on to tell the executives about the widespread corruption and how the secretary may have been blackmailed after the disappearance of my parents, and pressured by the corrupt officials to join forces with them and involve DöhmCorp.

The four executives wore shocked expressions. They looked at each other.

“Sir,” Riccardo Moretti began, “Döhm Corporation has always prided itself on being an honest and ethical company. We are scrupulous about complying with the law, and there are numerous safeguards in place to ensure that nothing untoward slips past us.” He gestured to his colleagues. “We’ve all been with the company since before the Döhms disappeared. We are all capable and conscientious, if you will forgive me for blowing my own trumpet, as are the staff under us. I haven’t noticed anything amiss in all that time. I’m sure that between the four of us and our staff we would have picked up anything out of the ordinary.” He looked distressed. “I’m sorry, sir, this is rather a shock.” He fell silent.

“Thank you, Mr Moretti. We’re aware of the rather unusual work- and power-sharing structure at DöhmCorp, and we think that makes it naturally resistant to the sorts of pressures I’m talking about. We have heard the secretary’s side of the story but we need to verify some of the details. It is possible that the conspiracy charge will be withdrawn, but at present the secretary is our guest in a secure facility. I’m not being facetious, he is being treated as a VIP and has some freedom of movement. We want him to remain where he is until our investigations are complete. We may need access to DöhmCorp records, but I will make a formal request if that becomes necessary. Would I be correct in expecting that we would have DöhmCorp’s cooperation?”

There were nods all around. “Certainly, sir,” Moretti replied. “DöhmCorp has nothing to hide. If we can help in any way we will be pleased to do so. The secretary will, of course, be accountable for any illegal actions. Knowing him, however, I just cannot believe that he would be involved in the corruption you’ve described. That goes against everything Errol Daventry stands for.”

“Thank you. You will appreciate that we must investigate until we can be sure one way or the other.” The procurator paused. “Now, there is another action of the secretary’s which has had a profound impact on DöhmCorp.”

The executives looked puzzled but they were listening intently.

“We believe that when Lukas and Rosalie Döhm vanished their son, Lucien, could not be found, meaning that, effectively, there was no heir. According to the terms of the Döhms’ wills, and the terms of the legal instruments drawn up by Donte Döhm, the company should have been wound up.”

“That’s true, but Lucien was found. He became head of the company under the terms of the wills, and the secretary is his guardian,” Moretti said.

“Have you ever met Lucien? How often have you seen him in the last ten years?”

Moretti looked startled. He turned to his fellow executives, who seemed just as surprised.

Maria Prabha, head of the legal department, spoke. “The secretary has photos of Lucien in his office. They date from when he was a small child up to one taken on his fourteenth birthday.” She rubbed a couple of fingers on her forehead. “I’ve never actually seen him, though. Are you suggesting that he doesn’t exist?”

“No, Ms Prabha, not quite. What I am suggesting is that the boy you know as Lucien is an imposter brought in by the secretary in order to keep the company operating.”

There was a sharp intake of breath. “We’ve been duped!” the other female executive said. She was Antonia Keyes, in charge of the corporation’s administrative functions. “Whenever I suggested that we should be getting Lucien in to begin learning the ropes, the secretary told me ‘He’s not ready yet’. I guess he was just fobbing me off.” She hesitated. “Now that I think about it, the boy in the photos could be anyone. I never knew Agen—he died before I began working for the company—but I’ve seen photos of him and he and Lukas were obviously father and son. The boy in the secretary’s photos does look a little like Lukas, but I wouldn’t call it a strong resemblance.”

The fourth member of the team, John Heitinga, head of operations, nodded. “The secretary fudged when I spoke to him, too. I suggested a couple of months ago that I should take Lucien with me on one of my tours around company facilities. I thought it was past time that the boy began to learn about the company. He’s the owner, after all, and I thought that observing how things worked in the field would be helpful for him. Errol told me that Lucien’s schoolwork was more important at this stage.”

“What do we do now?” Riccardo Moretti asked. “If we don’t have a legitimate heir the company will have to be wound up.” He took a deep breath and exhaled. “That will be a huge undertaking, and extremely disruptive for a lot of people.”

“Well, I have some good news,” the procurator said. He stood and looked to the mirror behind which he knew I was standing. He nodded.

That was my cue. There was a concealed door between the conference room and the media room. I opened it and joined the procurator at the table.

“Good grief!” someone said.

Adam put his arm around my shoulder. “You do have a legitimate heir. Allow me to introduce Echo Menier, the real Lucien Döhm.”

Antonia Keyes chuckled. “Well, there’s no doubt about that,” she said, standing. “He looks exactly like his father did when he was young.” She approached me with her hand held out.

I shook it and said, “Pleased to meet you, Ms Keyes.”

She looked taken aback momentarily, then smiled and said, “I see you’ve done your homework. I like you already!”

The other executives stood and I greeted each by name as we shook hands. We all sat. The DöhmCorp people looked at me expectantly. The procurator gave me a ‘go ahead’ gesture. I wasn’t prepared for this. I had expected Adam to take the running, but I guessed he was allowing me the freedom to do things my own way. In fact, he excused himself and left the room.

I looked around the table at my management team. “This is all very new to me. I’ve lived in an orphanage for ten years and know nothing about running a company, so please don’t be too hard on me if I stuff up.” That got smiles all round. “I suppose the most important thing right now is that DöhmCorp continues to operate as usual. I would be grateful if you guys would continue in your present roles.” I looked at them and received a nod from each executive. “I assure you I won’t be making any decisions that upset the apple cart. In fact I probably won’t be making any decisions about DöhmCorp without first discussing them with you.” That brought more nods and smiles. I paused to collect my thoughts. “I should also tell you that under the terms of my parents’ wills and the legal succession instruments set up by Donte Döhm I have appointed a board to guide me. The procurator is one member. The other two are the heads of the legal and accounting departments in the palace secretariat. The legal instruments require your approval of my choices, so I hope you will give that.”

Riccardo looked around the table and received nods from the other executives. “Your choices seem above reproach. I will put in writing our agreement on that.”

“Thank you, Mr Moretti. I don’t know how long it will take to resolve Mr Daventry’s situation, but I have spoken with him and heard his side of the story, and I hope it won’t be too long before we get everything sorted out. When the investigators have finished their work I will decide what action to take against the secretary, if any, and whether I need to find someone to replace him.”

I looked up as Adam returned to the room. He gave me a smile and a thumbs up sign.

I stopped to take a sip of water. “I apologise for bringing you here on a pretext, but with the corruption investigation and the secretary’s possible involvement I wasn’t sure who I could trust. We—my board and I—decided to invite you here so that we could observe your reactions to the news about the secretary and the corruption. I’m relieved to say that you have not given us any cause for concern. I think that’s all I can say at the moment.” I took a deep breath. “Um… do you have any questions?”

There were two questions. The first was, “Who is the imposter and what will happen to him?” Antonia Keyes asked it, and it was couched in a way that indicated she was concerned for him. I told them what I knew about Yoso, but all I could say was that I intended to visit him and that I would not leave him without support. That seemed to satisfy her. The second was more a request than a question: “We don’t stand on ceremony at DöhmCorp. Please use our first names when you’re talking with us,” Riccardo said.

“Only if you call me Echo,” I replied, with a grin. They all laughed, but readily agreed.

There were no other questions, but we did agree that Riccardo Moretti would act as the face of DöhmCorp in the absence of the secretary should the need arise. He invited me to visit the corporate headquarters, and offered to personally give me an orientation tour. We arranged an appointment for two days later.


My first foray into the corporate world began as something of a disaster.

Feeling a bit like a fish out of water I asked Darm to accompany me to my appointment with Riccardo Moretti. We arrived at the headquarters building, which was set in parkland at the edge of the city centre, a few minutes before the arranged time. Our escort, dressed in civilian clothes as was usual for personnel on guard detail, accompanied us into the building and took up stations in the foyer.

There was a middle-aged woman sitting behind the reception desk. She looked down her nose at me and said, “Yes?”

“I am Lucien Döhm. Mr Moretti is expecting me.”

“I don’t think so.”

I stared at her, not believing what I had heard. “Please check with Riccardo Moretti’s office. I have an appointment with him to tour the executive offices and to meet senior staff.”

The woman harrumphed. “I have better things to do than fool around with wise guy kids.”

I looked at her ID badge. “Ms Herbert,” I said firmly. “I may be a kid but I own this company. I repeat, Riccardo is expecting me. If you will not inform him I have arrived there will be consequences.”

She sneered at me. “Are you threatening me?”

“No, I am simply telling you what will happen very shortly.”

Ms Herbert harrumphed again. By this time two security guards had approached us.

“Is there a problem here?” one of them asked.

“This kid needs to be escorted out of the building. He’s wasting my time.”

“Right. Come on, son.” The guard reached to take my arm.

I held up my hand. “I am Lucien Döhm. I have an appointment with Riccardo Moretti. Please–”

“Oh, and I suppose this is the crown prince?” the other guard interrupted, grabbing hold of Darm.

That brought our escort running. “Let him go! Stand back!” one of them shouted at the security guard.

“And who are you?” the first guard demanded.

“Imperial guard,” the head of the escort team said. All four of the escort flashed their identity discs. “And this young man is the crown prince,” he added. “Are you hurt, Your Highness?” I almost laughed. The guard detail never used honorifics when they spoke to Darm.

“I’m fine,” Darm said, “but we’re late for our appointment now.”

Just then the receptionist’s communicator buzzed. She answered the call. “No, this is Ms Herbert. Shan is on sick leave today.” She listened for a moment, then went deathly pale. “Y-yes, s-sir. He is here, sir. I–”

“Is that Riccardo?” I asked. She nodded. I leaned over the desk and spoke into the communicator. “Riccardo, I think you’d better come down here. We have a problem. A couple of problems, in fact.”

Riccardo swore. “I’m on my way!” he said.

“Thank you, Ms Herbert,” I said, as politely as I could.

Our IG escort had the two security guards, now looking cowed and sheepish, surrounded.

“Thanks, guys,” I said. “Things were getting a little awkward. Riccardo is on his way. He should be able to sort this out.”

They nodded, but kept their eyes on the two guards.

Riccardo arrived with Antonia Keyes. I explained quickly what had happened. He spoke into his communicator, demanding that the head of security join us immediately. He turned to Antonia. “You’d better get someone else to take over the desk for the rest of the day.” She nodded and took out her communicator.

Riccardo called the guards over. He turned to Herbert, but addressed the three of them. “I left instructions that I was to be called immediately Mr Döhm arrived. I know his visit was added to the schedule for today because I checked that it had been done. All of you should have been aware of that. Please explain why you did not follow normal procedure or my instructions.”

He waited. There was no response. “Ms Herbert?”


“Did you check the schedule for the day when you logged in this morning?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you see Mr Döhm’s appointment listed?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And did you note the red flag attached to Mr Döhm’s appointment? The flag that noted him as a VIP and that I was to be called when he arrived?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then why did you not do it?” Riccardo was speaking quietly, but it was obvious he was running out of patience.

“She thought I was a kid being a smart alec,” I said. “If she doubted who I was she should have asked for my ID. I think she just decided I was trash before I even opened my mouth. I don’t think she should be working where she has contact with the public.”

Antonia had rejoined us. She and Riccardo both nodded.

I gestured towards the guards. “These guys just accepted what she said without question. If they had been thinking instead of throwing their weight around, they might have checked my ID—and Darm’s—themselves.”

The head of security rushed over to us. At the same time one of the lifts dinged and a young woman emerged and approached the desk.

Riccardo spoke to Antonia and the security head. “These three—he indicated Herbert and the guards—are suspended as of now. Please ensure that they attend my office tomorrow at 10 am for a disciplinary hearing. You will need to find replacement security for the foyer for the rest of this shift.” He turned to the young lady. “Peta, please take over the desk for today. You’ve done it before, so you shouldn’t have any problems, but call Antonia or me if you need to, please. If Shan is still sick tomorrow we might need you here again.”

Peta nodded. She moved behind the desk and Herbert gave up the chair to her.

I was impressed and gratified. Impressed with Riccardo’s decisiveness: he had the problem sorted out in about three minutes. Gratified that I had left the running of the company in his hands until we got Errol Daventry’s situation settled.

Darm dismissed our escort, telling them he would call when we were ready to leave, so that they didn’t have to hang around doing nothing for hours. Riccardo left Antonia and the security chief to deal with Herbert and the guards, and took Darm and me to the lift bank.

* * *

As he had promised, Riccardo gave us a comprehensive tour of the executive floor, including the office my parents had used. It was clean and tidy, but virtually unchanged from the last time one of them used it. The book Errol Daventry had mentioned was even still sitting on the table. I couldn’t help wondering what I might find out about my parents if I looked through the office. Riccardo noticed my pensive expression and put his arm around my shoulder.

“They were wonderful people, Echo. They were very good to work for and we all had a great deal of respect and admiration for them. I guess it seems a bit bizarre, but we left their office as it was, probably because we were expecting that it would be yours one day.”

“Thank you,” I said, almost whispering, “I’ll have to come and go through everything here sometime.”

“We would like that, and I reckon your mum and dad would, too,” Riccardo said in a gentle voice.

By the time we finished the tour of the executive floor it was lunchtime, so Riccardo invited us to eat with him. I was surprised when he took us downstairs to the company cafeteria.

“We don’t have an executive dining room,” he explained. “It’s a DöhmCorp tradition—requirement, really—that executives eat with everyone else. And we have a rule that executives and managers don’t sit with their peers. That way we are not seen as elitist or cliquey, and we get to keep in touch with the staff. You would be surprised how many problems get resolved over lunch in the cafeteria.”

I soon found that he wasn’t kidding. There was one serving queue and we joined the end of it. The people around us all greeted Riccardo warmly, using his first name, as did the cafeteria staff.

We found a table. “Wow, this is good!” I said, as I began eating. I had taken the dish of the day, which happened to be roast beef, served with roast potatoes, roast pumpkin, carrots, peas and gravy. “Is this typical, or did we happen on a special day?”

“This is pretty typical,” Riccardo replied. “They usually have a dish of the day plus an alternative, but I think most people go for the day’s special. Normally, you get a really good meal.”

A young man carrying his tray stopped beside us. “Is this the next generation of execs?” he asked Riccardo, indicating Darm and me with a nod of his head.

Riccardo laughed. “Hello, Jason, would you like to join us?” He waited until the young man was seated, and then said, “Echo, this is Jason Fels, head of our media unit. He’s the guy who handles all our publicity, and fields questions from journalists.”

I held out my hand. “Hi, Jason, I’m Lucien Döhm, but most people call me Echo.”

Jason had just taken a sip of his drink and nearly choked on it. He apologised profusely as he shook my hand. “Gee, Riccardo, you could have warned me.”

Riccardo was laughing too much to respond immediately. When he did, he explained that Jason was known as a joker whose pranks often caught others unawares.

I chuckled. “Oh, looks like we both fell into that trap, Jason.” I pointed across the table. “The other exec of the future is my friend Darm.”

Jason shook hands with Darm and looked closely at him. “That wouldn’t be Crown Prince Darmian, by any chance, would it?” he asked quietly.

Darm nodded. “Yes, but I’m here as Echo’s friend, not in any official capacity.” He looked Jason straight in the eye. “And I would like to keep it that way, please.”

Jason smiled. “Certainly, Your… er, Darmian. I won’t announce your presence, but if someone asks directly if you are the crown prince I will not lie. Sorry.”

Darm grinned. “I can live with that. I would not ask or expect you to lie.” He began to turn back to his food, then stopped and added, “By the way, no one calls me Darmian. Even my parents call me Darm, except on official occasions. Or if they’re really mad at me.” Then he added, drily, “Or if, as they say, they are ‘disappointed’ in me.”

That brought a guffaw and a high-five from Jason. “I’ve tried the old ‘disappointed in you’ approach with my children,” he said, still chuckling.

“Did it work?” Darm asked, with a cheeky grin.

“Uh, no.”

We had another good laugh, then everyone settled down and we had an enjoyable lunch. Jason took the opportunity to discuss a problem he had in his unit and I was impressed with the way Riccardo worked through it with him until they reached agreement on a solution. Jason left to return to work, and another person took his place, bringing another problem. Together, she and Riccardo solved that one, too.

Following lunch Riccardo showed us around the remainder of the building. He seemed to know every staff member’s first name, and it was obvious that he was respected and well liked. Darm and I returned to the palace late in the afternoon. We had schoolwork to catch up on.