Rachel DeSouza strode purposefully from the velvet curtain edged wings of the conference centre, out to the lectern that was positioned under the spotlights, at the centre of the wide stage.
Her high heeled, though suitably businesslike, black shoes clacked on the polished wooden boards. Her shoes complemented her well tailored, professional look, one inch above the knee, charcoal grey skirt with matching jacket.
The style of her white blouse was wide at the throat. Open so the collar fanned out over the lapels of her slim waisted jacket. Adding some colour to the dark suit and showing off the small, silver crucifix hanging on a thin silver chain. Her auburn hair was pulled back away from her attractive face, held behind with a chunky, white, hair claw.
Rachel halted at the podium placing her medically protected, theatre surgery style, gloved hands on the sides. She lightly ran the tip of her tongue along her dark, Tom Ford rouge painted lips to moisten them. Then she smiled showing small, bright, even, white teeth. Tilting her head very slightly to her left side, so she could be sure her lapel microphone would clearly pick up her opening words to the audience. Rachel set great store by making the perfect first impression.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you so much for coming out today. I’m Rachel DeSouza. Chartered Legal Executive for Leonhardt-Ashgate-Begum LLP. I’m certain that you are going to enjoy today’s presentation. It has been quite a difficult and awkward event to arrange, as I’m sure you are all aware. With the current restrictions. So I thank Maria Lasarra from social support and assistance at County Hall. Where is she?”
Rachel raised a hand to her brow to shade it from the stage lights as she leaned a little forward while peering left and right. Green eyes rapidly scanning the very well separated audience. She spotted Maria in the front on the end of a row of the tables and chairs and gave a little friendly wave.
“Thank you Maria. You did so much work and organised so brilliantly to enable us to be here. We will, I’m sure, be so grateful to you, once our session is complete.”
She dropped her smile and looked more serious. She reached forward and placed her hands under the automatic sanitizer dispenser. “ Everyone, please. I’m sure you all know the drill by now. Hands.”
She switched on her brilliant smile again. “Come on! You know what to do. There is paper towel on each of your desks.” Her smile lowered in power. Switching back to serious modes.
“While we are mentioning the safety for today, I remind you all to remain seated please. Stay at least two meters from anyone else around you. Anything you need will be brought to you by our assistants here. Sergei, Melissa, Bryan?” She called their names. “Stand up please! There they are look. By the exit. Wearing the green jackets. Anything these people hand to you has been fully sanitized, hasn’t it? I jolly well hope it has.”
A very tall,well built, blonde haired man stood up and nodded. He held up a litre spray gun that might have been used for misting indoor plants. He waved it around over his head so everyone seated could see. Then sat back down.
Rachel continued on. “You should only handle items already at your current station, that have been specially sanitised already. Or any items those three people in those green coats give to you. And, sorry to say, a terrible inconvenience I know,. But please, please, do keep your masks on, at all times.” She made a mock sad face of disappointment. “I know, I know. But some venues require them And this is one. Unless you are the speaker. Like me. Lucky me! So keep the mask on. Except during our wonderful refreshments that we shall be having in about two and a half hour’s time. Sandwiches, pastries, savouries and cakes. All sourced from the finest suppliers in the local community.” She smiled again.
Taking a breath, in the long but shallow manner of imperceptibly filling the lungs of an experienced public speaker, she looked more keenly at her audience. She did a fast mental arithmetic length by breadth desk count. Twelve by ten. Mostly full. So around a hundred people here today. Mostly conservatively dressed. Woollen jumpers and cardigans for this warm spring day. Predominantly grey haired and bespectacled. This was an older aged group. The retired. Seniors. Pensioners.
She smiled a touch wider. The target market had been achieved.
“I will run through the fire and health and safety legals in a moment. But first I just want to remind you why we are here this morning. Or, how about you remind me?”
She paused. Air hostess smile fixed on them. She waited. It would come. The one she wanted. Someone coughed. Feet shuffled, but nobody spoke. As there was still nothing she pushed them a little more. Wanting to break their embarrassment at speaking in front of strangers. She was looking for what she thought of as her lever.
“Anyone? Why are we all here? Or are you all supposed to be in the extreme fitness workout upstairs?”
There was some polite laughter. A man’s voice came from near the back.
“I’m only here for the egg mayonnaise sarnies.” A decent laugh for him from the assembled. Encouraged he continued, “I had them at another event last week. And those hand baked crisps. Lovely!”
Rachel shone her warmth upon him. “And..I dare say, Sir..you are here because this event is completely free?”
Bigger laughter. She felt the room relax.
Yes, she thought as she looked at the man. A late fifties, overweight gent, wearing a faded blue casual long sleeve zip up top and cord trousers. One hand resting on an aluminium walking stick with a claw base. He will do just fine.
She flashed her warmest and brightest. The full set of whites. “I thought so. Sir, what is your name, please?”
“ Well Louie, I hope you still have your voucher granting complimentary admission. Otherwise, I’m afraid I shall require three hundred pounds from you.”
“Oh..I’ve got it. Got it here.”
He fished into his baggy trouser pockets and pulled a crumpled cardboard coupon, that he held out so she could see.” She recognised the gold and silver colouring with the emerald script. She had designed them herself.
“Excellent Louie. Has everyone else brought theirs?” She asked in her Surrey, Home Counties, rich girl, accent.
She let them rummage for a moment.
In truth, she didn’t really care about the vouchers. She only needed them to think she did.
She didn’t’ need them. Didn’t even want them. She had invited everyone that was in this room. They were all here by her personal invitation. They just didn’t know it. They thought it was by chance. That it was fate. They did not know it was by design. They would never know.
As the slower ones were still peering into handbags and wallets she said,
“OK! That’s excellent. Then if we are all ready, let us begin to receive a few hour’s worth of the finest legal consulting on inheritance and succession planning advice, available in this country. Absolutely free of charge.”
Rachel DeSouza stifled a yawn. It had been almost two hours already. The room was large. But without the air-conditioning running it was hot in here. It couldn’t be switched on, of course. Because of the Covid threat.
It was very much like a college lecture in here today. Chairs and desks with attentive students. Some more attentive than others. Some hopelessly lost by the lesson. And the folk sitting in the chairs were much older than the average university student. By around on average fifty years.
Her colleague, the slim and handsome, tanned skinned, Bryan, was completing his talk on tax planning. Or tax evasion, more accurately. He noticed many of the elderly ladies giving him friendly nods of encouragement as he once again momentarily lost his place in his notes and stumbled over his words.
They did not mind.
He had a thick mop of dark hair and a clean and pleasant complexion. Reminding them of a favoured grandson. He looked young, but Rachel knew he was older than he appeared. He dyed his hair to hide the grey.
She hid another small yawn behind a hand she used to pull on her bottom lip. Making her appear deep in thought as Bryan continued his presentation using the power point.
“You can also give gifts totalling £3,000 each year completely free of Inheritance Tax. You can also gift £5,000 on the occasion of a child’s wedding. I suggest that you all draw up a list of key dates ..”
She wasn’t thinking about anything. She was just bored.
Not by Bryan who always put on a good performance on what was a very boring topic. Even the professionals were bored by it. She was a professional and she was thoroughly disinterested in it. But only because she had heard it all so many, many times before.
However the moment she heard him hit the end of his final point she quickly stood, smoothing down her narrow skirt, walking across the stage towards him, clapping. Her own hands held out in front of her like a ship’s prow, leading the applause.
“ Wonderful, wonderful, Bryan. Wasn’t that good, everyone?” She clapped some more. Until she felt the room tiring of it.
“ I hope you all learned something valuable from that session. Bryan usually charges a miser’s fortune for such knowledge. So make the most of it.”
The youthful looking Bryan blushed as he gathered up his folder.
She looked in the audience for her man from earlier. The Joker in the pack.
“So, Louie. Do you remember what Bryan said was the very most important thing you must do with regards to inheritance planning? If you want to keep your money ‘legally’ away from the taxman?”
“Yeah. Don’t die!” he said loudly. He gave a phlegm cough. Emphysema rooted, rather than Covid, thought Rachel
He got laughter and a few calls of “ Too right” and similar for that one.
“And what if you unfortunately did not manage to avoid doing just that, Louie? What did Bryan suggest?”
“Come on Louie. It’s almost lunchtime. I can hear rumbling tummies.” She patted her own perfectly flat stomach.” She switched to what Sergei called her ‘Primary School Headmistress’ tone. “We shall just do this short, final segment then finish up for lunch. As soon as Louie reminds us of what was said.”
“Er…” Louie looked along the notes he had made during the morning. “Was it something about putting it into a trust?”
“Close,” Rachel told him, “And very good. But no! Not the number one most important thing. Ivy? Do you know? Francesca?” She surveyed all the old folk once more. Looking for an upraised hand. She spied one from a dark haired lady, wearing a very colourful top, who had skin the colour of coal.
“Yes. Renata? That is your name isn’t it? Oh, Rose. Sorry Rose? Yes, you know? What was that? Could you say the answer again, please? Yes! That’s right. Thank you. The most important thing any of us can possibly do to avoid unnecessary taxation on our lifetime assets, is,…”
And she spun her hands in an inclusive circling motion. The gathering of mostly pension aged people answered her in a raggedy disjointed low chorus.
“Write a Will.”
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file