The Endgame
written by Jeffret Archer and narrated by Bill Wallace

 

‘Good morning, Cornelius,’ said Frank. ‘I’ve just put the phone down on your brother Hugh. That’s the second time he’s called this morning.’

‘What did he want?’ asked Cornelius.

‘To have the full implications explained to him, and also his immediate obligations.’

‘Good,’ said Cornelius. ‘So can I hope to receive a cheque for PS100,000 in the near future?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Frank. ‘From the tone of his voice I don’t think that’s what he had in mind, but I’ll let you know just as soon as I’ve heard back from him.’

‘I shall look forward to that, Frank.’

‘I do believe you’re enjoying yourself, Cornelius.’

‘You bet I am,’ he replied. ‘I only wish Millie was here to share the fun with me.’

‘You know what she would have said, don’t you?’

‘No, but I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.’

‘You’re a wicked old man.’

‘And, as always, she would have been right,’ Cornelius confessed with a laugh. ‘Goodbye, Frank.’ As he replaced the receiver there was a knock at the door.

‘Come in,’ said Cornelius, puzzled as to who it could possibly be. The door opened and his housekeeper entered, carrying a tray with a cup of tea and a plate of shortbread biscuits. She was, as always, neat and trim, not a hair out of place, and showed no sign of embarrassment. She can’t have received Frank’s letter yet, was Cornelius’s first thought.

‘Pauline,’ he said as she placed the tray on his desk, ‘did you receive a letter from my solicitor this morning?’

‘Yes, I did, sir,’ Pauline replied, ‘and of course I shall sell the car immediately, and repay your PS500.’ She paused before looking straight at him. ‘But I was just wondering, sir …’

‘Yes, Pauline?’

‘Would it be possible for me to work it off in lieu? You see, I need a car to pick up my girls from school.’

For the first time since he had embarked on the enterprise, Cornelius felt guilty. But he knew that if he agreed to Pauline’s request, someone would find out, and the whole enterprise would be endangered.

‘I’m so sorry, Pauline, but I’ve been left with no choice.’

‘That’s exactly what the solicitor explained in his letter,’ Pauline said, fiddling with a piece of paper in the pocket of her pinafore. ‘Mind you, I never did go much on lawyers.’

This statement made Cornelius feel even more guilty, because he didn’t know a more trustworthy person than Frank Vintcent.

‘I’d better leave you now, sir, but I’ll pop back this evening just to make sure things don’t get too untidy. Would it be possible, sir … ?’

‘Possible … ?’ said Cornelius.

‘Could you give me a reference? I mean, you see, it’s not that easy for someone of my age to find a job.’

‘I’ll give you a reference that would get you a position at Buckingham Palace,’ said Cornelius. He immediately sat down at his desk and wrote a glowing homily on the service Pauline Croft had given for over two decades. He read it through, then handed it across to her. ‘Thank you, Pauline,’ he said, ‘for all you have done in the past for Daniel, Millie and, most of all, myself.’

‘My pleasure, sir,’ said Pauline.

Once she had closed the door behind her, Cornelius could only wonder if water wasn’t sometimes thicker than blood.

He sat back down at his desk and began writing some notes to remind him what had taken place that morning. When he had finished he went through to the kitchen to make himself some lunch, and found a salad had been laid out for him.

After lunch, Cornelius took a bus into town - a novel experience. It was some time before he located a bus stop, and then he discovered that the conductor didn’t have change for a twenty-pound note. His first call after he had been dropped off in the town centre was to the local estate agent, who didn’t seem that surprised to see him. Cornelius was delighted to find how quickly the rumour of his financial demise must be spreading.

‘I’ll have someone call round to The Willows in the morning, Mr Barrington,’ said the young man, rising from behind his desk, ‘so we can measure up and take some photographs. May we also have your permission to place a sign in the garden?’

‘Please do,’ said Cornelius without hesitation, and barely stopped himself from adding, the bigger the better.

After he’d left the estate agent, Cornelius walked a few yards down the street and called into the local removal firm. He asked another young man if he could make an appointment for them to take away the entire contents of the house.

‘Where’s it all to go, sir?’

‘To Botts’ Storeroom in the High Street,’ Cornelius informed him.

‘That will be no problem, sir,’ said the young assistant, picking up a pad from his desk. Once Cornelius had completed the forms in triplicate, the assistant said, ‘Sign there, sir,’ pointing to the bottom of the form. Then, looking a little nervous, he added, ‘We’ll need a deposit of PS100.’

‘Of course,’ said Cornelius, taking out his chequebook.

‘I’m afraid it will have to be cash, sir,’ the young man said in a confidential tone.

Cornelius smiled. No one had refused a cheque from him for over thirty years. ‘I’ll call back tomorrow,’ he said.

On the way back to the bus stop Cornelius stared through the window of his brother’s hardware store, and noted that the staff didn’t seem all that busy. On arriving back at The Willows, he returned to his study and made some more notes on what had taken place that afternoon.

As he climbed the stairs to go to bed that night, he reflected that it must have been the first afternoon in years that no one had called him to ask how he was. He slept soundly that night.

 

When Cornelius came downstairs the following morning, he picked up his post from the mat and made his way to the kitchen. Over a bowl of cornflakes he checked through the letters. He had once been told that if it was known you were likely to go bankrupt, a stream of brown envelopes would begin to drop through the letterbox, as shopkeepers and small businessmen tried to get in before anyone else could be declared a preferred creditor.

There were no brown envelopes in the post that morning, because Cornelius had made certain every bill had been covered before he began his journey down this particular road.

Other than circulars and free offers, there was just one white envelope with a London postmark. It turned out to be a handwritten letter from his nephew Timothy, saying how sorry he was to learn of his uncle’s problems, and that although he didn’t get back to Chudley much nowadays, he would make every effort to travel up to Shropshire at the weekend and call in to see him.

Although the message was brief, Cornelius silently noted that Timothy was the first member of the family to show any sympathy for his predicament.

When he heard the doorbell ring, he placed the letter on the kitchen table and walked out into the hall. He opened the front door to be greeted by Elizabeth, his brother’s wife. Her face was white, lined and drained, and Cornelius doubted if she had slept a great deal the previous night.

The moment Elizabeth had stepped into the house she began to pace around from room to room, almost as though she were checking to see that everything was still in place, as if she couldn’t accept the words she had read in the solicitor’s letter.

Any lingering doubts must have been dispelled when, a few minutes later, the local estate agent appeared on the doorstep, tape measure in hand, with a photographer by his side.

‘If Hugh was able to return even part of the hundred thousand I loaned him, that would be most helpful,’ Cornelius remarked to his sister-in-law as he followed her through the house.

It was some time before she spoke, despite the fact that she had had all night to consider her response.

‘It’s not quite that easy,’ she eventually replied. ‘You see, the loan was made to the company, and the shares are distributed among several people.’

Cornelius knew all three of the several people. ‘Then perhaps the time has come for you and Hugh to sell off some of your shares.’

‘And allow some stranger to take over the company, after all the work we’ve put into it over the years? No, we can’t afford to let that happen. In any case, Hugh asked Mr Vintcent what the legal position was, and he confirmed that there was no obligation on our part to sell any of our shares.’

‘Have you considered that perhaps you have a moral obligation?’ asked Cornelius, turning to face his sister-in-law.

‘Cornelius,’ she said, avoiding his stare, ‘it has been your irresponsibility, not ours, that has been the cause of your downfall. Surely you wouldn’t expect your brother to sacrifice everything he’s worked for over the years, simply to place my family in the same perilous position in which you now find yourself ?’

Cornelius realised why Elizabeth hadn’t slept the previous night. She was not only acting as spokeswoman for Hugh, but was obviously making the decisions as well. Cornelius had always considered her to be the stronger-willed of the two, and he doubted if he would come face to face with his brother before an agreement had been reached.

‘But if there’s any other way we might help …’ Elizabeth added in a more gentle tone, as her hand rested on an ornate gold-leafed table in the drawing room.

‘Well, now you mention it,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I’m putting the house on the market in a couple of weeks’ time, and will be looking for …’

‘That soon?’ said Elizabeth. ‘And what’s going to happen to all the furniture?’

‘It will all have to be sold to help cover the debts. But, as I said …’

‘Hugh has always liked this table.’

‘Louis XIV,’ said Cornelius casually.

‘I wonder what it’s worth,’ Elizabeth mused, trying to make it sound as if it were of little consequence.

‘I have no idea,’ said Cornelius. ‘If I remember correctly, I paid around PS60,000 for it - but that was over ten years ago.’

‘And the chess set?’ Elizabeth asked, picking up one of the pieces.

‘It’s a worthless copy,’ Cornelius replied. ‘You could pick up a set just like it in any Arab bazaar for a couple of hundred pounds.’

‘Oh, I always thought …’ Elizabeth hesitated before replacing the piece on the wrong square. ‘Well, I must be off,’ she said, sounding as if her task had been completed. ‘We must try not to forget that I still have a business to run.’

Cornelius accompanied her as she began striding back down the long corridor in the direction of the front door. She walked straight by the portrait of her nephew Daniel. In the past she had always stopped to remark on how much she missed him.

‘I was wondering …’ began Cornelius as they walked out into the hall.

‘Yes?’ said Elizabeth.

‘Well, as I have to be out of here in a couple of weeks, I hoped it might be possible to move in with you. That is, until I find somewhere I can afford.’

‘If only you’d asked a week ago,’ said Elizabeth, without missing a beat. ‘But unfortunately we’ve just agreed to take in my mother, and the only other room is Timothy’s, and he comes home most weekends.’

‘Is that so?’ said Cornelius.

‘And the grandfather clock?’ asked Elizabeth, who still appeared to be on a shopping expedition.

‘Victorian - I purchased it from the Earl of Bute’s estate.’

‘No, I meant how much is it worth?’

‘Whatever someone is willing to pay for it,’ Cornelius replied as they reached the front door.

‘Don’t forget to let me know, Cornelius, if there’s anything I can do to help.’

‘How kind of you, Elizabeth,’ he said, opening the door to find the estate agent hammering a stake into the ground with a sign on it declaring FOR SALE. Cornelius smiled, because it was the only thing that morning that had stopped Elizabeth in her tracks.

 

Frank Vintcent arrived on the Thursday evening, carrying a bottle of cognac and two pizzas.

‘If I’d realised that losing Pauline was to be part of the deal, I would never have agreed to go along with your plan in the first place,’ Frank said as he nibbled at his microwaved pizza. ‘How do you manage without her?’

‘Rather badly,’ Cornelius admitted, ‘although she still drops in for an hour or two every evening. Otherwise this place would look like a pigsty. Come to think of it, how do you cope?’

‘As a bachelor,’ Frank replied, ‘you learn the art of survival from an early age. Now, let’s stop this small-talk and get on with the game.’

‘Which game?’ enquired Cornelius with a chuckle.

‘Chess,’ replied Frank. ‘I’ve had enough of the other game for one week.’

‘Then we’d better go through to the library.’

Frank was surprised by Cornelius’s opening moves, as he had never known his old friend to be so daring. Neither of them spoke again for over an hour, most of which Frank spent trying to defend his queen.

‘This might well be the last game we play with this set,’ said Cornelius wistfully.

‘No, don’t worry yourself about that,’ said Frank. ‘They always allow you to keep a few personal items.’

‘Not when they’re worth a quarter of a million pounds,’ replied Cornelius.

‘I had no idea,’ said Frank, looking up.

‘Because you’re not the sort of man who has ever been interested in worldly goods. It’s a sixteenth-century Persian masterpiece, and it’s bound to cause considerable interest when it comes under the hammer.’

‘But surely you’ve found out all you need to know by now,’ said Frank. ‘Why carry on with the exercise when you could lose so much that’s dear to you?’

‘Because I still have to discover the truth.’

Frank sighed, stared down at the board and moved his queen’s knight. ‘Checkmate,’ he said. ‘It serves you right for not concentrating.’

 

Cornelius spent most of Friday morning in a private meeting with the managing director of Botts and Company, the local fine art and furniture auctioneers.

Mr Botts had already agreed that the sale could take place in a fortnight’s time. He had often repeated that he would have preferred a longer period to prepare the catalogue and send out an extensive mailing for such a fine collection, but at least he showed some sympathy for the position Mr Barrington found himself in. Over the years, Lloyd’s of London, death duties and impending bankruptcy had proved the auctioneer’s best friends.

‘We will need to have everything in our storeroom as soon as possible,’ said Mr Botts, ‘so there’s enough time to prepare a catalogue, while still allowing the customers to view on three consecutive days before the sale takes place.’

Cornelius nodded his agreement.

The auctioneer also recommended that a full page be taken in the Chudley Advertiser the following Wednesday, giving details of what was coming under the hammer, so they could reach those people they failed to contact by post.

Cornelius left Mr Botts a few minutes before midday, and on his way back to the bus stop dropped into the removal company. He handed over PS100 in fives and tens, leaving the impression that it had taken him a few days to raise the cash.

While waiting for the bus, he couldn’t help noticing how few people bothered to say good morning, or even acknowledge him. Certainly no one crossed the road to pass the time of day.

 

Twenty men in three vans spent the next day loading and unloading as they travelled back and forth between The Willows and the auctioneers’ storeroom in the High Street. It was not until the early evening that the last stick of furniture had been removed from the house.

As he walked through the empty rooms, Cornelius was surprised to find himself thinking that, with one or two exceptions, he wasn’t going to miss many of his worldly possessions. He retired to the bedroom - the only room in the house that was still furnished - and continued to read the novel Elizabeth had recommended before his downfall.

The following morning he only had one call, from his nephew Timothy, to say he was up for the weekend, and wondered if Uncle Cornelius could find time to see him.

‘Time is the one thing I still have plenty of’ replied Cornelius.

‘Then why don’t I drop round this afternoon?’ said Timothy. ‘Shall we say four o’clock?’

 

‘I’m sorry I can’t offer you a cup of tea,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I finished the last packet this morning, and as I’m probably leaving the house next week …’

‘It’s not important,’ said Timothy, who was unable to mask his distress at finding the house stripped of his uncle’s possessions.

‘Let’s go up to the bedroom. It’s the only room that still has any furniture in it - and most of that will be gone by next week.’

‘I had no idea they’d taken everything away. Even the picture of Daniel,’ Timothy said as he passed an oblong patch of a lighter shade of cream than the rest of the wall.

‘And my chess set,’ sighed Cornelius. ‘But I can’t complain. I’ve had a good life.’ He began to climb the stairs to the bedroom.

Cornelius sat in the only chair while Timothy perched on the end of the bed. The old man studied his nephew more closely. He had grown into a fine young man. An open face, with clear brown eyes that served to reveal, to anyone who didn’t already know, that he had been adopted. He must have been twenty-seven or twenty-eight - about the same age Daniel would have been if he were still alive. Cornelius had always had a soft spot for his nephew, and had imagined that his affection was reciprocated. He wondered if he was about to be disillusioned once again.

Timothy appeared nervous, shuffling uneasily from foot to foot as he perched on the end of the bed. ‘Uncle Cornelius,’ he began, his head slighdy bowed, ‘as you know, I have received a letter from Mr Vintcent, so I thought I ought to come to see you and explain that I simply don’t have PS1,000 to my name, and therefore I’m unable to repay my debt at present.’

Cornelius was disappointed. He had hoped that just one of the family …

‘However,’ the young man continued, removing a long, thin envelope from an inside pocket of his jacket, ‘on my twenty-first birthday my father presented me with shares of 1 per cent of the company, which I think must be worth at least PS1,000, so I wondered if you would consider taking them in exchange for my debt - that is, until I can afford to buy them back.’

Cornelius felt guilty for having doubted his nephew even for a moment. He wanted to apologise, but knew he couldn’t if the house of cards was to remain in place for a few more days. He took the widow’s mite and thanked Timothy.

‘I am aware just how much of a sacrifice this must be for you,’ said Cornelius, ‘remembering how many times you have told me in the past of your ambition to take over the company when your father eventually retires, and your dreams of expanding into areas he has refused even to contemplate.’

‘I don’t think he’ll ever retire,’ said Timothy, with a sigh. ‘But I was hoping that after all the experience I’ve gained working in London he might take me seriously as a candidate for manager when Mr Leonard retires at the end of the year.’

‘I fear your chances won’t be advanced when he learns that you’ve handed over 1 per cent of the company to your bankrupt uncle.’

‘My problems can hardly be compared with the ones you are facing, Uncle. I’m only sorry I can’t hand over the cash right now. Before I leave, is there anything else I can do for you?’

‘Yes, there is, Timothy,’ said Cornelius, returning to the script. ‘Your mother recommended a novel, which I’ve been enjoying, but my old eyes seem to tire earlier and earlier, and I wondered if you’d be kind enough to read a few pages to me. I’ve marked the place I’ve reached.’

‘I can remember you reading to me when I was a child,’ said Timothy. ‘Just William and Swallows and Amazons,’ he added as he took the proffered book.

Timothy must have read about twenty pages when he suddenly stopped and looked up.

‘There’s a bus ticket at page 450. Shall I leave it there, Uncle?’

‘Yes, please do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I put it there to remind me of something.’ He paused. ‘Forgive me, but I’m feeling a little tired.’

Timothy rose and said, ‘I’ll come back soon and finish off the last few pages.’

‘No need to bother yourself, I’ll be able to manage that.’

‘Oh, I think I’d better, Uncle, otherwise I’ll never find out which one of them becomes Prime Minister.’

 

The second batch of letters, which Frank Vintcent sent out on the following Friday, caused another flurry of phone calls.

‘I’m not sure I fully understand what it means,’ said Margaret, in her first communication with her brother since calling round to see him a fortnight before.

‘It means exactly what it says, my dear,’ said Cornelius calmly. ‘All my worldly goods are to come under the hammer, but I am allowing those I consider near and dear to me to select one item that, for sentimental or personal reasons, they would like to see remain in the family. They will then be able to bid for them at the auction next Friday.’

‘But we could all be outbid and end up with nothing,’ said Margaret.

‘No, my dear,’ said Cornelius, trying not to sound exasperated. ‘The public auction will be held in the afternoon. The selected pieces will be auctioned separately in the morning, with only the family and close friends present. The instructions couldn’t be clearer.’

‘And are we able to see the pieces before the auction takes place?’

‘Yes, Margaret,’ said her brother, as if addressing a backward child. ‘As Mr Vintcent stated clearly in his letter, “Viewing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., before the sale on Friday at eleven o’clock”.’

‘But we can only select one piece?’

‘Yes,’ repeated Cornelius, ‘that is all the petitioner in bankruptcy would allow. But you’ll be pleased to know that the portrait of Daniel, which you have commented on so many times in the past, will be among the lots available for your consideration.’

‘Yes, I do like it,’ said Margaret. She hesitated for a moment. ‘But will the Turner also be up for sale?’

‘It certainly will,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’m being forced to sell everything.’

‘Have you any idea what Hugh and Elizabeth are after?’

‘No, I haven’t, but if you want to find out, why don’t you ask them?’ he replied mischievously, aware that they scarcely exchanged a word from one year’s end to the next.

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