The Endgame
written by Jeffret Archer and narrated by Bill Wallace

 

The second call came only moments after he had put the phone down on his sister.

‘At last,’ said a peremptory voice, as if it were somehow Cornelius’s fault that others might also wish to speak to him.

‘Good morning, Elizabeth,’ said Cornelius, immediately recognising the voice. ‘How nice to hear from you.’

‘It’s about the letter I received this morning.’

‘Yes, I thought it might be,’ said Cornelius.

‘It’s just, well, I wanted to confirm the value of the table - the Louis XIV piece - and, while I’m on the line, the grandfather clock that used to belong to the Earl of Bute.’

‘If you go to the auction house, Elizabeth, they will give you a catalogue, which tells you the high and low estimate for every item in the sale.’

‘I see,’ said Elizabeth. She remained silent for some time. ‘I don’t suppose you know if Margaret will be bidding for either of those pieces?’

‘I have no idea,’ replied Cornelius. ‘But it was Margaret who was blocking the line when you were trying to get through, and she asked me a similar question, so I suggest you give her a call’ Another long silence. ‘By the way, Elizabeth, you do realise that you can only bid for one item?’

‘Yes, it says as much in the letter,’ replied his sister-in-law tartly.

‘I only ask because I always thought Hugh was interested in the chess set.’

‘Oh no, I don’t think so,’ said Elizabeth. Cornelius wasn’t in any doubt who would be doing the bidding on behalf of that family on Friday morning.

‘Well, good luck,’ said Cornelius. ‘And don’t forget the 15 per cent commission,’ he added as he put the phone down.

 

Timothy wrote the following day to say he was hoping to attend the auction, as he wanted to pick up a little memento of The Willows and his uncle and aunt.

Pauline, however, told Cornelius as she tidied up the bedroom that she had no intention of going to the auction.

Why not?’ he asked.

‘Because I’d be sure to make a fool of myself and bid for something I couldn’t afford.’

‘Very wise,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ve fallen into that trap once or twice myself. But did you have your eye on anything in particular?’

‘Yes, I did, but my savings would never stretch to it.’

‘Oh, you can never be sure with auctions,’ said Cornelius. ‘If no one else joins in the bidding, sometimes you can make a killing.’

Well, I’ll think about it, now I’ve got a new job.’

‘I’m so pleased to hear that,’ said Cornelius, who was genuinely disappointed to learn her news.

 

Neither Cornelius nor Frank was able to concentrate on their weekly chess match that Thursday evening, and after half an hour they abandoned the game and settled on a draw.

‘I must confess that I can’t wait for things to return to normal,’ said Frank as his host poured him a glass of cooking sherry.

‘Oh, I don’t know. I find the situation has its compensations.’

‘Like what for example?’ said Frank, who frowned after his first sip.

‘Well, for a start, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s auction.’

‘But that could still go badly wrong,’ said Frank.

‘What can possibly go wrong?’ asked Cornelius.

Well, for a start, have you considered … ?’ But he didn’t bother to complete the sentence, because his friend wasn’t listening.

 

Cornelius was the first to arrive at the auction house the following morning. The room was laid out with 120 chairs in neat rows of twelve, ready for the anticipated packed house that afternoon, but Cornelius thought the real drama would unfold in the morning, when only six people would be in attendance.

The next person to appear, fifteen minutes before the auction was due to begin, was Cornelius’s solicitor Frank Vintcent. Observing his client deep in conversation with Mr Botts, who would be conducting the auction, he took a seat towards the back of the room on the right-hand side.

Cornelius’s sister Margaret was the next to make an appearance, and she was not as considerate. She charged straight up to Mr Botts and asked in a shrill voice, ‘Can I sit anywhere I like?’

‘Yes, madam, you most certainly can,’ said Mr Botts. Margaret immediately commandeered the centre seat in the front row, directly below the auctioneer’s podium.

Cornelius gave his sister a nod before walking down the aisle and taking a chair three rows in front of Frank.

Hugh and Elizabeth were the next to arrive. They stood at the back for some time while they considered the layout of the room. Eventually they strolled up the aisle and occupied two seats in the eighth row, which afforded them a perfect sightline to the podium, while at the same time being able to keep an eye on Margaret. Opening move to Elizabeth, thought Cornelius, who was quietly enjoying himself.

As the hour hand of the clock on the wall behind the auctioneer’s rostrum ticked inexorably towards eleven, Cornelius was disappointed that neither Pauline nor Timothy made an appearance.

Just as the auctioneer began to climb the steps to the podium, the door at the back of the room eased open and Pauline’s head peered round. The rest of her body remained hidden behind the door until her eyes settled on Cornelius, who smiled encouragingly. She stepped inside and closed the door, but showed no interest in taking a seat, retreating into a corner instead.

The auctioneer beamed down at the handpicked invitees as the clock struck eleven.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began, ‘I’ve been in the business for over thirty years, but this is the first time I’ve conducted a private sale, so this is a most unusual auction even for me. I’d better go over the ground rules, so that no one can be in any doubt should a dispute arise later.

‘All of you present have some special association, whether as family or friends, with Mr Cornelius Barrington, whose personal effects are coming under the hammer. Each of you has been invited to select one item from the inventory, for which you will be allowed to bid. Should you be successful you may not bid for any other lot, but if you fail on the item of your first choice, you may join in the bidding for any other lot. I hope that is clear,’ he said, as the door was flung open and Timothy rushed in.

‘So sorry,’ he said a little breathlessly, ‘but my train was held up.’ He quickly took a seat in the back row. Cornelius smiled - every one of his pawns was now in place.

‘As there are only five of you eligible to bid,’ continued Mr Botts as if there had been no interruption, ‘only five items will come under the hammer. But the law states that if anyone has previously left a written bid, that bid must be recognised as part of the auction. I shall make things as easy to follow as possible by saying if I have a bid at the table, from which you should assume it is a bid left at our office by a member of the public. I think it would be only fair to point out,’ he added, ‘that I have outside bids on four of the five items.

‘Having explained the ground rules, I will with your permission begin the auction.’ He glanced towards the back of the room at Cornelius, who nodded his assent.

‘The first lot I am able to offer is a long-case clock, dated 1892, which was purchased by Mr Barrington from the estate of the late Earl of Bute.

‘I shall open the bidding for this lot at PS3,000. Do I see PS3,500?’ Mr Botts asked, raising an eyebrow. Elizabeth looked a little shocked, as three thousand was just below the low estimate and the figure she and Hugh had agreed on that morning.

‘Is anyone interested in this lot?’ asked Mr Botts, looking directly at Elizabeth, but she remained apparently mesmerised. ‘I shall ask once again if anyone wishes to bid PS3,500 for this magnificent long-case clock. Fair warning. I see no bids, so I shall have to withdraw this item and place it in the afternoon sale.’

Elizabeth still seemed to be in a state of shock. She immediately turned to her husband and began a whispered conversation with him. Mr Botts looked a little disappointed, but moved quickly on to the second lot.

‘The next lot is a charming watercolour of the Thames by William Turner of Oxford. Can I open the bidding at PS2,000?’

Margaret waved her catalogue furiously.

‘Thank you, madam,’ said the auctioneer, beaming down at her. ‘I have an outside bid of PS3,000. Will anyone offer me PS4,000?’

‘Yes!’ shouted Margaret, as if the room were so crowded that she needed to make herself heard above the din.

‘I have a bid of five thousand at the table - will you bid six, madam?’ he asked, returning his attention to the lady in the front row.

‘I will,’ said Margaret equally firmly.

‘Are there any other bids?’ demanded the auctioneer, glancing around the room - a sure sign that the bids at the table had dried up. ‘Then I’m going to let this picture go for PS6,000 to the lady in the front row.’

‘Seven,’ said a voice behind her. Margaret looked round to see that her sister-in-law had joined in the bidding.

‘Eight thousand!’ shouted Margaret.

‘Nine,’ said Elizabeth without hesitation.

‘Ten thousand!’ bellowed Margaret.

Suddenly there was silence. Cornelius glanced across the room to see a smile of satisfaction cross Elizabeth’s face, having left her sister-in-law with a bill for PS10,000.

Cornelius wanted to burst out laughing. The auction was turning out to be even more entertaining than he could have hoped.

‘There being no more bids, this delightful water-colour is sold to Miss Barrington for PS10,000,’ said Mr Botts as he brought the hammer down with a thump. He smiled down at Margaret, as if she had made a wise investment.

‘The next lot,’ he continued, ‘is a portrait simply entitled Daniel, by an unknown artist. It is a well-executed work, and I was hoping to open the bidding at PS100. Do I see a bid of one hundred?’

To Cornelius’s disappointment, no one in the room seemed to be showing any interest in this lot.

‘I am willing to consider a bid of PS50 to get things started,’ said Mr Botts, ‘but I am unable to go any lower. Will anyone bid me PS50?’

Cornelius glanced around the room, trying to work out from the expressions on their faces who had selected this item, and why they no longer wished to bid when the price was so reasonable.

‘Then I fear I will have to withdraw this lot as well.’

‘Does that mean I’ve got it?’ asked a voice from the back. Everyone looked round.

‘If you are willing to bid PS50, madam,’ said Mr Botts, adjusting his spectacles, ‘the picture is yours.’

‘Yes please,’ said Pauline. Mr Botts smiled in her direction as he brought down the hammer. ‘Sold to the lady at the back of the room,’ he declared, ‘for PS50.’

‘Now I move on to lot number four, a chess set of unknown provenance. What shall I say for this item? Can I start someone off with PS100? Thank you, sir.’

Cornelius looked round to see who was bidding. ‘I have two hundred at the table. Can I say three hundred?’

Timothy nodded.

‘I have a bid at the table of three fifty. Can I say four hundred?’

This time Timothy looked crestfallen, and Cornelius assumed the sum was beyond his limit. ‘Then I am going to have to withdraw this piece also and place it in this afternoon’s sale.’ The auctioneer stared at Timothy, but he didn’t even blink. ‘The item is withdrawn.’

‘And finally I turn to lot number five. A magnificent Louis XIV table, circa 1712, in almost mint condition. Its provenance can be traced back to its original owner, and it has been in the possession of Mr Barrington for the past eleven years. The full details are in your catalogue. I must warn you that there has been a lot of interest in this item, and I shall open the bidding at PS50,000.’

Elizabeth immediately raised her catalogue above her head.

‘Thank you, madam. I have a bid at the table of sixty thousand. Do I see seventy?’ he asked, his eyes fixed on Elizabeth.

Her catalogue shot up again.

‘Thank you, madam. I have a bid at the table of eighty thousand. Do I see ninety?’ This time Elizabeth seemed to hesitate before raising her catalogue slowly.

‘I have a bid at the table of one hundred thousand. Do I see a hundred and ten?’

Everyone in the room was now looking towards Elizabeth, except Hugh, who, head down, was staring at the floor. He obviously wasn’t going to have any influence on the bidding. ‘If there are no further bids, I shall have to withdraw this lot and place it in the afternoon sale. Fair warning,’ declared Mr Botts. As he raised his hammer, Elizabeth’s catalogue suddenly shot up.

‘One hundred and ten thousand. Thank you, madam. Are there any more bids? Then I shall let this fine piece go for PS110,000.’ He brought down his hammer and smiled at Elizabeth. ‘Congratulations, madam, it is indeed a magnificent example of the period.’ She smiled weakly back, a look of uncertainty on her face.

Cornelius turned round and winked at Frank, who remained impassively in his seat. He then rose from his place and made his way to the podium to thank Mr Botts for a job well done. As he turned to leave, he smiled at Margaret and Elizabeth, but neither acknowledged him, as they both seemed to be preoccupied. Hugh, head in hands, continued to stare down at the floor.

As Cornelius walked towards the back of the hall, he could see no sign of Timothy, and assumed that his nephew must have had to return to London. Cornelius was disappointed, as he had hoped the lad might join him for a pub lunch. After such a successful morning he felt a little celebrating was in order.

He had already decided that he wasn’t going to attend the afternoon sale, as he had no desire to witness his worldly goods coming under the hammer, even though he wouldn’t have room for most of them once he moved into a smaller house. Mr Botts had promised to call him the moment the sale was over and report how much the auction had raised.

Having enjoyed the best meal since Pauline had left him, Cornelius began his journey back from the pub to The Willows. He knew exactly what time the bus would appear to take him home, and arrived at the bus stop with a couple of minutes to spare. He now took it for granted that people would avoid his company.

Cornelius unlocked the front door as the clock on the nearby church struck three. He was looking forward to the inevitable fall-out when it sank in to Margaret and Elizabeth how much they had really bid. He grinned as he headed towards his study and glanced at his watch, wondering when he might expect a call from Mr Botts. The phone began to ring just as he entered the room. He chuckled to himself. It was too early for Mr Botts, so it had to be Elizabeth or Margaret, who would need to see him urgently. He picked up the phone to hear Frank’s voice on the other end of the line.

‘Did you remember to withdraw the chess set from the afternoon sale?’ Frank asked, without bothering with any formalities.

‘What are you talking about?’ said Cornelius.

‘Your beloved chess set. Have you forgotten that as it failed to sell this morning, it will automatically come up in the afternoon sale? Unless of course you’ve already given orders to withdraw it, or tipped off Mr Botts about its true value.’

‘Oh my God,’ said Cornelius. He dropped the phone and ran back out of the door, so he didn’t hear Frank say, ‘I’m sure a telephone call to Mr Botts’s assistant is all that will be needed.’

Cornelius checked his watch as he ran down the path. It was ten past three, so the auction would have only just begun. Running towards the bus stop, he tried to recall what lot number the chess set was. All he could remember was that there were 153 lots in the sale.

Standing at the bus stop, hopping impatiently from foot to foot, he scanned the road in the hope of hailing a passing taxi, when to his relief he saw a bus heading towards him. Although his eyes never left the driver, that didn’t make him go any faster.

When it eventually drew up beside him and the doors opened, Cornelius leapt on and took his place on the front seat. He wanted to tell the driver to take him straight to Botts and Co. in the High Street, and to hell with the fare, but he doubted if the other passengers would have fallen in with his plan.

He stared at his watch - 3.17 p.m. - and tried to remember how long it had taken Mr Botts that morning to dispose of each lot. About a minute, a minute and a half perhaps, he concluded. The bus came to a halt at every stop on its short journey into town, and Cornelius spent as much time following the progress of the minute hand on his watch as he did the journey. The driver finally reached the High Street at 3.31 p.m.

Even the door seemed to open slowly. Cornelius leapt out onto the pavement, and despite not having run for years, sprinted for the second time that day. He covered the two hundred yards to the auction house in less than record pace, but still arrived exhausted. He charged into the auction room as Mr Botts declared, ‘Lot number 32, a long-case clock originally purchased from the estate of …’

Cornelius’s eyes swept the room, coming to rest on an auctioneer’s clerk who was standing in the corner with her catalogue open, entering the hammer price after each lot had been sold. He walked over to her just as a woman he thought he recognised slipped quickly past him and out of the door.

‘Has the chess set come up yet?’ asked a still-out-of-breath Cornelius.

‘Let me just check, sir,’ the clerk replied, flicking back through her catalogue. ‘Yes, here it is, lot 27.’

‘How much did it fetch?’ asked Cornelius.

‘PS450, sir,’ she replied.

 

Mr Botts called Cornelius later that evening to inform him that the afternoon sale had raised PS902,800 - far more than he had estimated.

‘Do you by any chance know who bought the chess set?’ was Cornelius’s only question.

‘No,’ replied Mr Botts. ‘All I can tell you is that it was purchased on behalf of a client. The buyer paid in cash and took the item away.’

As he climbed the stairs to go to bed, Cornelius had to admit that everything had gone to plan except for the disastrous loss of the chess set, for which he realised he had only himself to blame. What made it worse was that he knew Frank would never refer to the incident again.

 

Cornelius was in the bathroom when the phone rang at 7.30 the following morning. Obviously someone had been lying awake wondering what was the earliest moment they could possibly disturb him.

‘Is that you, Cornelius?’

‘Yes,’ he replied, yawning noisily. ‘Who’s this?’ he added, knowing only too well.

‘It’s Elizabeth. I’m sorry to call you so early, but I need to see you urgently.’

‘Of course, my dear,’ Cornelius replied, ‘why don’t you join me for tea this afternoon?’

‘Oh no, it can’t wait until then. I have to see you this morning. Could I come round at nine?’

‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but I already have an appointment at nine.’ He paused. ‘But I could fit you in at ten for half an hour, then I won’t be late for my meeting with Mr Botts at eleven.’

‘I could give you a lift into town if that would help,’ suggested Elizabeth.

‘That’s extremely kind of you, my dear,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I’ve got used to taking the bus, and in any case I wouldn’t want to impose on you. Look forward to seeing you at ten.’ He put the phone down.

Cornelius was still in the bath when the phone rang a second time. He wallowed in the warm water until the ringing had ceased. He knew it was Margaret, and he was sure she would call back within minutes.

He hadn’t finished drying himself before the phone rang again. He walked slowly to the bedroom, picked up the receiver by his bed and said, ‘Good morning Margaret.’

‘Good morning, Cornelius,’ she said, sounding surprised. Recovering quickly, she added, ‘I need to see you urgently.’

‘Oh? What’s the problem?’ asked Cornelius, well aware exactly what the problem was.

‘I can’t possibly discuss such a delicate matter over the phone, but I could be with you by ten.’

‘I’m afraid I’ve already agreed to see Elizabeth at ten. It seems that she also has an urgent matter she needs to discuss with me. Why don’t you come round at eleven?’

‘Perhaps it would be better if I came over immediately,’ said Margaret, sounding flustered.

‘No, I’m afraid eleven is the earliest I can fit you in, my dear. So it’s eleven or afternoon tea. Which would suit you best?’

‘Eleven,’ said Margaret without hesitation.

‘I thought it might,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll look forward to seeing you then,’ he added before replacing the receiver.

When Cornelius had finished dressing, he went down to the kitchen for breakfast. A bowl of cornflakes, a copy of the local paper and an unstamped envelope were awaiting him, although there was no sign of Pauline.

He poured himself a cup of tea, tore open the envelope and extracted a cheque made out to him for PS500. He sighed. Pauline must have sold her car.

He began to turn the pages of the Saturday supplement, stopping when he reached ‘Houses for Sale’. When the phone rang for the third time that morning, he had no idea who it might be.

‘Good morning, Mr Barrington,’ said a cheerful voice. ‘It’s Bruce from the estate agents. I thought I’d give you a call to let you know we’ve had an offer for The Willows that is in excess of the asking price.’

‘Well done,’ said Cornelius.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said the agent, with more respect in his voice than Cornelius had heard from anyone for weeks, ‘but I think we should hold on for a little longer. I’m confident I can squeeze some more out of them. If I do, my advice would be to accept the offer and ask for a 10 per cent deposit.’

‘That sounds like good advice to me,’ said Cornelius. ‘And once they’ve signed the contract, I’ll need you to find me a new house.’

‘What sort of thing are you looking for, Mr Barrington?’

‘I want something about half the size of The Willows, with perhaps a couple of acres, and I’d like to remain in the immediate area.’

‘That shouldn’t be too hard, sir. We have one or two excellent houses on our books at the moment, so I’m sure we’ll be able to accommodate you.’

‘Thank you,’ said Cornelius, delighted to have spoken to someone who had begun the day well.

He was chuckling over an item on the front page of the local paper when the doorbell rang. He checked his watch. It was still a few minutes to ten, so it couldn’t be Elizabeth. When he opened the front door he was greeted by a man in a green uniform, holding a clipboard in one hand and a parcel in the other.

‘Sign here,’ was all the courier said, handing over a biro.

Cornelius scrawled his signature across the bottom of the form. He would have asked who had sent the parcel if he had not been distracted by a car coming up the drive.

‘Thank you,’ he said. He left the package in the hall and walked down the steps to welcome Elizabeth.

When the car drew up outside the front door, Cornelius was surprised to find Hugh seated in the passenger seat.

‘It was kind of you to see us at such short notice,’ said Elizabeth, who looked as if she had spent another sleepless night.

‘Good morning, Hugh,’ said Cornelius, who suspected his brother had been kept awake all night. ‘Please come through to the kitchen - I’m afraid it’s the only room in the house that’s warm.’

As he led them down the long corridor, Elizabeth stopped in front of the portrait of Daniel. ‘I’m so glad to see it back in its rightful place,’ she said. Hugh nodded his agreement.

Cornelius stared at the portrait, which he hadn’t seen since the auction. ‘Yes, back in its rightful place,’ he said, before taking them through to the kitchen. ‘Now, what brings you both to The Willows on a Saturday morning?’ he asked as he filled the kettle.

‘It’s about the Louis XIV table,’ said Elizabeth diffidently.

‘Yes, I shall miss it,’ said Cornelius. ‘But it was a fine gesture on your part, Hugh,’ he added.

‘A fine gesture …’ repeated Hugh.

‘Yes. I assumed it was your way of returning my hundred thousand,’ said Cornelius. Turning to Elizabeth, he said, ‘How I misjudged you, Elizabeth. I suspect it was your idea all along.’

Elizabeth and Hugh just stared at each other, then both began speaking at once.

‘But we didn’t …’ said Hugh.

‘We were rather hoping …’ said Elizabeth. Then they both fell silent.

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