The Endgame
written by Jeffret Archer and narrated by Bill Wallace

THE ENDGAME

 

CORNELIUS BARRINGTON hesitated before he made his next move. He continued to study the board with great interest. The game had been going on for over two hours, and Cornelius was confident that he was only seven moves away from checkmate. He suspected that his opponent was also aware of the fact.

Cornelius looked up and smiled across at Frank Vintcent, who was not only his oldest friend but had over the years, as the family solicitor, proved to be his wisest adviser. The two men had many things in common: their age, both over sixty; their background, both middle-class sons of professionals; they had been educated at the same school and at the same university. But there the similarities ended. For Cornelius was by nature an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, who had made his fortune mining in South Africa and Brazil. Frank was a solicitor by profession, cautious, slow to decision, fascinated by detail.

Cornelius and Frank also differed in their physical appearance. Cornelius was tall, heavily built, with a head of silver hair many men half his age would have envied. Frank was slight, of medium stature, and apart from a semicircle of grey tufts, was almost completely bald.

Cornelius had been widowed after four decades of happy married life. Frank was a confirmed bachelor.

Among the things that had kept them close friends was their enduring love of chess. Frank joined Cornelius at The Willows for a game every Thursday evening, and the result usually remained in the balance, often ending in stalemate.

The evening always began with a light supper, but only one glass of wine each would be poured - the two men took their chess seriously - and after the game was over they would return to the drawing room to enjoy a glass of brandy and a cigar; but tonight Cornelius was about to shatter that routine.

‘Congratulations,’ said Frank, looking up from the board. ‘I think you’ve got me beaten this time. I’m fairly sure there’s no escape.’ He smiled, placed the red king flat on the board, rose from his place and shook hands with his closest friend.

‘Let’s go through to the drawing room and have a brandy and a cigar,’ suggested Cornelius, as if it were a novel idea.

‘Thank you,’ said Frank as they left the study and strolled towards the drawing room. As Cornelius passed the portrait of his son Daniel, his heart missed a beat - something that hadn’t changed for the past twenty-three years. If his only child had lived, he would never have sold the company.

As they entered the spacious drawing room the two men were greeted by a cheerful fire blazing in the grate, which had been laid by Cornelius’s housekeeper Pauline only moments after she had finished clearing up their supper. Pauline also believed in the virtues of routine, but her life too was about to be shattered.

‘I should have trapped you several moves earlier,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I was taken by surprise when you captured my queen’s knight. I should have seen that coming,’ he added, as he strolled over to the sideboard. Two large cognacs and two Monte Cristo cigars had been laid out on a silver tray. Cornelius picked up the cigar-clipper and passed it across to his friend, then struck a match, leaned over and watched Frank puff away until he was convinced his cigar was alight. He then completed the same routine himself before sinking into his favourite seat by the fire.

Frank raised his glass. ‘Well played, Cornelius,’ he said, offering a slight bow, although his host would have been the first to acknowledge that over the years his guest was probably just ahead on points.

Cornelius allowed Frank to take a few more puffs before shattering his evening. Why hurry? After all, he had been preparing for this moment for several weeks, and was unwilling to share the secret with his oldest friend until everything was in place.

They both remained silent for some time, relaxed in each other’s company. Finally Cornelius placed his brandy on a side table and said, ‘Frank, we have been friends for over fifty years. Equally importantly, as my legal adviser you have proved to be a shrewd advocate. In fact, since the untimely death of Millicent there has been no one I rely on more.’

Frank continued to puff away at his cigar without interrupting his friend. From the expression on his face, he was aware that the compliment was nothing more than an opening gambit. He suspected he would have to wait some time before Cornelius revealed his next move.

‘When I first set up the company some thirty years ago, it was you who was responsible for executing the original deeds; and I don’t believe I’ve signed a legal document since that day which has not crossed your desk - something that was unquestionably a major factor in my success.’

‘It’s generous of you to say so,’ said Frank, before taking another sip of brandy, ‘but the truth is that it was always your originality and enterprise that made it possible for the company to go from strength to strength - gifts that the gods decided not to bestow on me, leaving me with little choice but to be a mere functionary.’

‘You have always underestimated your contribution to the company’s success, Frank, but I am in no doubt of the role you played over the years.’

‘Where is this all leading?’ asked Frank with a smile.

‘Patience, my friend,’ said Cornelius. ‘I still have a few moves to make before I reveal the stratagem I have in mind.’ He leaned back and took another long puff of his cigar. ‘As you know, when I sold the company some four years ago, it had been my intention to slow down for the first time in years. I had promised to take Millie on an extended holiday to India and the Far East - ‘ he paused ‘ - but that was not to be.’

Frank nodded his head in understanding.

‘Her death served to remind me that I am also mortal, and may myself not have much longer to live.’

‘No, no, my friend,’ protested Frank. ‘You still have a good many years to go yet.’

‘You may be right,’ said Cornelius, ‘although funnily enough it was you who made me start to think seriously about the future …’

‘Me?’ said Frank, looking puzzled.

‘Yes. Don’t you remember some weeks ago, sitting in that chair and advising me that the time had come for me to consider rewriting my will?’

‘Yes, I do,’ said Frank, ‘but that was only because in your present will virtually everything is left to Millie.’

‘I’m aware of that,’ said Cornelius, ‘but it nevertheless served to concentrate the mind. You see, I still rise at six o’clock every morning, but as I no longer have an office to go to, I spend many self-indulgent hours considering how to distribute my wealth now that Millie can no longer be the main beneficiary.’

Cornelius took another long puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘For the past month I have been considering those around me - my relatives, friends, acquaintances and employees - and I began to think about the way they have always treated me, which caused me to wonder which of them would show the same amount of devotion, attention and loyalty if I were not worth millions, but was in fact a penniless old man.’

‘I have a feeling I’m in check,’ said Frank, with a laugh.

‘No, no, my dear friend,’ said Cornelius. ‘You are absolved from any such doubts. Otherwise I would not be sharing these confidences with you.’

‘But are such thoughts not a little unfair on your immediate family, not to mention …’

‘You may be right, but I don’t wish to leave that to chance. I have therefore decided to find out the truth for myself, as I consider mere speculation to be unsatisfactory.’ Once again, Cornelius paused to take a puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘So indulge me for a moment while I tell you what I have in mind, for I confess that without your cooperation it will be impossible for me to carry out my little subterfuge. But first allow me to refill your glass.’ Cornelius rose from his chair, picked up his friend’s empty goblet and walked to the sideboard.

‘As I was saying,’ continued Cornelius, passing the refilled glass back to Frank, ‘I have recently been wondering how those around me would behave if I were penniless, and I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way to find out.’

Frank took a long gulp before enquiring, ‘What do you have in mind? A fake suicide perhaps?’

‘Not quite as dramatic as that,’ replied Cornelius. ‘But almost, because - ‘ he paused again ‘ - I intend to declare myself bankrupt.’ He stared through the haze of smoke, hoping to observe his friend’s immediate reaction. But, as so often in the past, the old solicitor remained inscrutable, not least because, although his friend had just made a bold move, he knew the game was far from over.

He pushed a pawn tentatively forward. ‘How do you intend to go about that?’ he asked.

‘Tomorrow morning,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I want you to write to the five people who have the greatest claim on my estate: my brother Hugh, his wife Elizabeth, their son Timothy, my sister Margaret, and finally my housekeeper Pauline.’

‘And what will be the import of this letter?’ asked Frank, trying not to sound too incredulous.

‘You will explain to all of them that, due to an unwise investment I made soon after my wife’s death, I now find myself in debt. In fact, without their help I may well be facing bankruptcy.’

‘But …’ protested Frank.

Cornelius raised a hand. ‘Hear me out,’ he pleaded, ‘because your role in this real-life game could prove crucial. Once you have convinced them that they can no longer expect anything from me, I intend to put the second phase of my plan into operation, which should prove conclusively whether they really care for me, or simply for the prospect of my wealth.’

‘I can’t wait to learn what you have in mind,’ said Frank.

Cornelius swirled the brandy round in his glass while he collected his thoughts.

‘As you are well aware, each of the five people I have named has at some time in the past asked me for a loan. I have never required anything in writing, as I have always considered the repayment of these debts to be a matter of trust. These loans range from PS100,000 to my brother Hugh to purchase the lease for his shop - which I understand is doing quite well - to my housekeeper Pauline, who borrowed PS500 for a deposit on a secondhand car. Even young Timothy needed PS1,000 to pay off his university loan, and as he seems to be progressing well in his chosen profession, it should not be too much to ask him - like all of the others - to repay his debt.’

‘And the second test?’ enquired Frank.

‘Since Millie’s death, each of them has performed some little service for me, which they have always insisted they enjoyed carrying out, rather than it being a chore. I’m about to find out if they are willing to do the same for a penniless old man.’

‘But how will you know …’ began Frank.

‘I think that will become obvious as the weeks go by. And in any case, there is a third test, which I believe will settle the matter.’

Frank stared across at his friend. ‘Is there any point in trying to talk you out of this crazy idea?’ he asked.

‘No, there is not,’ replied Cornelius without hesitation. ‘I am resolved in this matter, although I accept that I cannot make the first move, let alone bring it to a conclusion, without your cooperation.’

‘If it is truly what you want me to do, Cornelius, then I shall carry out your instructions to the letter, as I have always done in the past. But on this occasion there must be one proviso.’

‘And what might that be?’ asked Cornelius.

‘I shall not charge a fee for this commission, so that I will be able to attest to anyone who should ask that I have not benefited from your shenanigans.’

‘But …’

‘No “buts”, old friend. I made a handsome profit from my original shareholding when you sold the company. You must consider this a small attempt to say thank you.’

Cornelius smiled. ‘It is I who should be grateful, and indeed I am, as always, conscious of your valued assistance over the years. You are truly a good friend, and I swear I would leave my entire estate to you if you weren’t a bachelor, and if I didn’t know it wouldn’t change your way of life one iota.’

‘No, thank you,’ said Frank with a chuckle. ‘If you did that, I would only have to carry out exactly the same test with a different set of characters.’ He paused. ‘So, what is your first move?’

Cornelius rose from his chair. ‘Tomorrow you will send out five letters informing those concerned that a bankruptcy notice has been served on me, and that I require any outstanding loans to be repaid in full, and as quickly as possible.’

Frank had already begun making notes on a little pad he always carried with him. Twenty minutes later, when he had written down Cornelius’s final instruction, he placed the pad back in an inside pocket, drained his glass and stubbed out his cigar.

When Cornelius rose to accompany him to the front door, Frank asked, ‘But what is to be the third of your tests, the one you’re convinced will prove so conclusive?’

The old solicitor listened carefully as Cornelius outlined an idea of such ingenuity that he departed feeling all the victims would be left with little choice but to reveal their true colours.

 

The first person to call Cornelius on Saturday morning was his brother Hugh. It must have been only moments after he had opened Frank’s letter. Cornelius had the distinct feeling that someone else was listening in on the conversation.

‘I’ve just received a letter from your solicitor,’ said Hugh, ‘and I simply can’t believe it. Please tell me there’s been some dreadful mistake.’

‘I’m afraid there has been no mistake,’ Cornelius replied. ‘I only wish I could tell you otherwise.’

‘But how could you, who are normally so shrewd, have allowed such a thing to happen?’

‘Put it down to old age,’ Cornelius replied. ‘A few weeks after Millie died I was talked into investing a large sum of money in a company that specialised in supplying mining equipment to the Russians. All of us have read about the endless supply of oil there, if only one could get at it, so I was confident my investment would show a handsome return. Last Friday I was informed by the company secretary that they had filed a 217 order, as they were no longer solvent.’

‘But surely you didn’t invest everything you had in the one company?’ said Hugh, sounding even more incredulous.

‘Not originally, of course,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I fear I got sucked in whenever they needed a further injection of cash. Towards the end I had to go on investing more, as it seemed to me the only way I would have any chance of getting back my original investment.’

‘But doesn’t the company have any assets you can lay your hands on? What about all the mining equipment?’

‘It’s all rusting away somewhere in central Russia, and so far we haven’t seen a thimbleful of oil.’

‘Why didn’t you get out when your losses were still manageable?’ asked Hugh.

‘Pride, I suppose. Unwilling to admit I’d backed a loser, always believing my money would be safe in the long run.’

‘But they must be offering some recompense,’ said Hugh desperately.

‘Not a penny,’ replied Cornelius. ‘I can’t even afford to fly over and spend a few days in Russia to find out what the true position is.’

‘How much time have they given you?’

‘A bankruptcy notice has already been served on me, so my very survival depends on how much I can raise in the short term.’ Cornelius paused. ‘I’m sorry to remind you of this, Hugh, but you will recall that some time ago I loaned you PS100,000. So I was rather hoping …’

‘But you know that every penny of that money has been sunk into the shop, and with High Street sales at an all-time low, I don’t think I could lay my hands on more than a few thousand at the moment.’

Cornelius thought he heard someone whispering the words ‘And no more’ in the background.

‘Yes, I can see the predicament you’re in,’ said Cornelius. ‘But anything you can do to help would be appreciated. When you’ve settled on a sum - ‘ he paused again ‘ - and naturally you’ll have to discuss with Elizabeth just how much you can spare - perhaps you could send a cheque direct to Frank Vintcent’s office. He’s handling the whole messy business.’

‘The lawyers always seem to end up getting their cut, whether you win or lose.’

‘To be fair,’ said Cornelius, ‘Frank has waived his fee on this occasion. And while you’re on the phone, Hugh, the people you’re sending to refit the kitchen were due to start later this week. It’s even more important now that they complete the job as quickly as possible, because I’m putting the house on the market and a new kitchen will help me get a better price. I’m sure you understand.’

‘I’ll see what I can do to help,’ said Hugh, ‘but I may have to move that particular team onto another assignment. We’ve got a bit of a backlog at the moment.’

‘Oh? I thought you said money was a little tight right now,’ Cornelius said, stifling a chuckle.

‘It is,’ said Hugh, a little too quickly. ‘What I meant to say was that we’re all having to work overtime just to keep our heads above water.’

‘I think I understand,’ said Cornelius. ‘Still, I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to help, now you’re fully aware of my situation.’ He put the phone down and smiled.

The next victim to contact him didn’t bother to phone, but arrived at the front door a few minutes later, and wouldn’t take her finger off the buzzer until the door had been opened.

‘Where’s Pauline?’ was Margaret’s first question when her brother opened the door. Cornelius stared down at his sister, who had put on a little too much make-up that morning.

‘I’m afraid she’s had to go,’ said Cornelius as he bent down to kiss his sister on the cheek. ‘The petitioner in bankruptcy takes a rather dim view of people who can’t afford to pay their creditors, but still manage to retain a personal entourage. It was considerate of you to pop round so quickly in my hour of need, Margaret, but if you were hoping for a cup of tea, I’m afraid you’ll have to make it yourself.’

‘I didn’t come round for a cup of tea, as I suspect you know only too well, Cornelius. What I want to know is how you managed to fritter away your entire fortune.’ Before her brother could deliver some well-rehearsed lines from his script, she added, ‘You’ll have to sell the house, of course. I’ve always said that since Millie’s death it’s far too large for you. You can always take a bachelor flat in the village.’

‘Such decisions are no longer in my hands,’ said Cornelius, trying to sound helpless.

‘What are you talking about?’ demanded Margaret, rounding on him.

‘Just that the house and its contents have already been seized by the petitioners in bankruptcy. If I’m to avoid going bankrupt, we must hope that the house sells for a far higher price than the estate agents are predicting.’

‘Are you telling me there’s absolutely nothing left?’

‘Less than nothing would be more accurate,’ said Cornelius, sighing. ‘And once they’ve evicted me from The Willows, I’ll have nowhere to go.’ He tried to sound plaintive. ‘So I was rather hoping that you would allow me to take up the kind offer you made at Millie’s funeral and come and live with you.’

His sister turned away, so that Cornelius was unable to see the expression on her face.

‘That wouldn’t be convenient at the present time,’ she said without explanation. ‘And in any case, Hugh and Elizabeth have far more spare rooms in their house than I do.’

‘Quite so,’ said Cornelius. He coughed. ‘And the small loan I advanced you last year, Margaret - I’m sorry to raise the subject, but …’

‘What little money I have is carefully invested, and my brokers tell me that this is not a time to sell.’

‘But the allowance I’ve provided every month for the past twenty years - surely you have a little salted away?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ Margaret replied. ‘You must understand that being your sister has meant I am expected to maintain a certain standard of living, and now that I can no longer rely on my monthly allowance, I shall have to be even more careful with my meagre income.’

‘Of course you will, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘But any little contribution would help, if you felt able …’

‘I must be off,’ said Margaret, looking at her watch. ‘You’ve already made me late for the hairdresser.’

‘Just one more little request before you go, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘In the past you’ve always been kind enough to give me a lift into town whenever …’

‘I’ve always said, Cornelius, that you should have learned to drive years ago. If you had, you wouldn’t expect everyone to be at your beck and call night and day. I’ll see what I can do,’ she added as he opened the door for her.

‘Funny, I don’t recall you ever saying that. But then, perhaps my memory is going as well,’ he said as he followed his sister out onto the drive. He smiled. ‘New car, Margaret?’ he enquired innocently.

‘Yes,’ his sister replied tartly as he opened the door for her. Cornelius thought he detected a slight colouring in her cheeks. He chuckled to himself as she drove off. He was learning more about his family by the minute.

Cornelius strolled back into the house, and returned to his study. He closed the door, picked up the phone on his desk and dialled Frank’s office.

‘Vintcent, Ellwood and Halfon,’ said a prim voice.

‘I’d like to speak to Mr Vintcent.’

‘Who shall I say is calling?’

‘Cornelius Barrington.’

‘I’ll have to see if he’s free, Mr Barrington.’

Very good, thought Cornelius. Frank must have convinced even his receptionist that the rumours were true, because in the past her response had always been, ‘I’ll put you straight through, sir.’

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