Extract: Brut Force by Peter Stafford-Bow

Felix Hart, Head of Wine at Gatesave, the UK’s most fearsome supermarket chain, is minding his own business when he is accosted by a senior colleague…

There were machinations afoot at Gatesave. Our CEO had been unceremoniously sacked just a few weeks earlier, following the eighth successive quarter of declining sales. The final straw had been the unravelling of the company’s bold expansion into the up-and-coming Moldovan retail market, which had proved to be a very long way from upping, let alone coming, and the resulting power vacuum was strong enough to make your ears pop. The top role had been filled, on an interim basis, by the Director of Commerce, a deeply unpleasant man who had spent thirty years rising through the ranks from his ever-so-humble start as a Saturday boy at Gatesave’s Crawley branch.

The Director of Commerce, in a little conceit on his acronym, liked to be referred to as ‘The Doc’. He felt it gave him an air of learning and professionalism, despite it being widely known that his academic career had peaked at Crawley Sixth Form College with a diploma in hotel management. Behind his back, he was known as The Dick, for no reason other than gratuitous disrespect.

Tapping away at my laptop, I sensed the buzz of conversation quieten. I glanced up. The Dick was meandering his way across the trading floor, easing his way between the banks of desks, lingering for an occasional exchange of words with an attractive female colleague. The Dick himself, however, was not an attractive man. He was wide-hipped with fleshy limbs, his pudgy face invariably painted with a smirk. His hair was combed into an uncomfortable side parting, as though he’d been hard-groomed for church by a severe nanny.

I observed his approach out of the corner of my eye. Every so often, he would pass a senior manager and pause, fixing them with a mean little grin. I knew what that expression meant. It said its wearer was in a position to alter, quite dramatically, the employment status of anyone or anything that displeased him.

The Dick glanced over and my eyes flicked back to my screen, slightly too late. It looked worryingly likely that his destination was the wine team. What the hell did he want with me? I prayed it would be a short interaction.

Sure enough, with revolting slowness, The Dick eased into our little cluster of desks, smiling down at the junior members of the team like an over-familiar scout master. He turned through 180 degrees and docked himself next to my laptop, the desk making a quiet, heartfelt moan as it took the strain of his behind. I looked up and rubbed my hands, an eager, business-like smile upon my face. But The Dick was staring down at my neighbour, the attractive young fruit juice buyer, who I had poached from Merryfield Superstores just last month.

“That’s a lovely dress,” he said. My colleague smiled, awkwardly. I felt a flush of anger, the type a young bachelor gorilla must feel when paid a visit by the leader of the troop, the ageing, mangy but still-powerful silverback.

“I hope Hart here’s taking care of you?” he oiled, without looking at me.

I was filled with an overwhelming urge to bend, grab the man’s ankles and lift them high over his head, sending him rolling backwards over the table and on to the floor. Then I imagined beating him methodically with a stout bamboo cane as he cowered, gibbering, on the carpet, each strike accompanied by a blood-curdling Kendo battle shout.

But I’m a professional, so I took a deep breath and, zen-like, allowed my anger to subside. I did, however, continue to rub my hands, faster and faster, until The Dick could no longer ignore the whisper of hot palm flesh just inches behind his right ear.

He turned to me, scowling, and I beamed back like an unhinged puppy.

“Like-for-like sales up four percent, sir!”

The Dick glowered. I was safe though, senior enough to be taken seriously but too junior to be a real threat. The Dick raised his head, his face easing into a humourless smile as he addressed the floor.

“Is Hart still pretending that wine is too complicated a department to be managed by anyone but himself?”

No-one answered.

“It is very complicated, sir, you’re right, and if I have failed at making it appear simple then I take full responsibility for that,” I said.

The Dick turned back to me, his smirk fading. His eyes narrowed as he tried to work out whether he’d been contradicted.

“I have very little time for complexity, Hart. Simplicity is my watchword, first, second and third.” He raised his head and addressed the rest of the team. “Fourth, fifth and sixth!” he added, idiotically.

“That’s sage advice, sir,” I lied.

“How much Champagne do we have?” The smugness was back. I glanced at my logistics controller.

“Claire, can you give us the current stock position please? I think it’s around two-point-five million…”

“Not enough.”

I paused. “Not enough, sir? That’s a pretty heavy stockholding, around forty percent up on last year, and last January we had to…”

“Not enough.” He said it quietly now, there was a dangerous tone to his voice.

“Right, sir. But it’s nearly October, so we’re pretty tight for shipping more stock. I’m not sure whether…”

“Not. Enough.” The whole floor was quiet now. My cheeks flushed. Why the hell did he want even more Champagne? Ok, it was three months until Christmas and one week more until New Year’s Eve. And not just any old New Year’s Eve, it was Millennium Eve, the night before the year 2000. Everyone knew it would be a big party night but, for the love of Bacchus, there’s only so much England can drink…

About Brut Force

Brut Force is the sequel to Corkscrew: the highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer – a picaresque, satirical tale drawing on the author’s early years working as an international wine buyer for some of the world’s largest retailers.

In Brut Force, Felix Hart, a wine buyer at the top of his game, finds himself compromised by a ruthless, multinational drinks corporation.

Forced to participate in a high-profile, corrupt wine tasting, Hart is drawn into a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse, pursued by blackmailers, assassins and organic wine fanatics.

The action moves from the Byzantine intrigue of the Minstrels of Wine to France’s most glamorous chateaux, Hart relying on his quick wits, fine palate and a touch of muscle to stay ahead of his enemies. But he meets his match in Lily Tremaine, a beautiful and passionate sommelier, who disrupts his easy, pleasure-seeking life and turns his world upside down.

Brut Force (£9.99, Acorn Independent Press) and Corkscrew (£10.99, Thistle Publishing) are available to order in bookshops and on Amazon here.

Peter Stafford-Bow is a novelist and wine consultant, based in London. He is a noted public speaker, wine educator and a regular on the literary festival circuit. He has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize for Corkscrew with the winner due to be announced in May 2019.

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