The Endgame
written by Jeffret Archer and narrated by Bill Wallace

 

‘Tell him the truth,’ said Hugh firmly.

‘Oh?’ said Cornelius. ‘Have I misunderstood what took place at the auction yesterday morning?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid you have,’ said Elizabeth, any remaining colour draining from her cheeks. ‘You see, the truth of the matter is that the whole thing got out of control, and I carried on bidding for longer than I should have done.’ She paused. ‘I’d never been to an auction before, and when I failed to get the grandfather clock, and then saw Margaret pick up the Turner so cheaply, I’m afraid I made a bit of a fool of myself.’

‘Well, you can always put it back up for sale,’ said Cornelius with mock sadness. ‘It’s a fine piece, and sure to retain its value.’

‘We’ve already looked into that,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But Mr Botts says there won’t be another furniture auction for at least three months, and the terms of the sale were clearly printed in the catalogue: settlement within seven days.’

‘But I’m sure that if you were to leave the piece with him …’

‘Yes, he suggested that,’ said Hugh. ‘But we didn’t realise that the auctioneers add 15 per cent to the sale price, so the real bill is for PS126,500. And what’s worse, if we put it up for sale again they also retain 15 per cent of the price that’s bid, so we would end up losing over thirty thousand.’

‘Yes, that’s the way auctioneers make their money,’ said Cornelius with a sigh.

‘But we don’t have thirty thousand, let alone 126,500,’ cried Elizabeth.

Cornelius slowly poured himself another cup of tea, pretending to be deep in thought. ‘Umm,’ he finally offered. ‘What puzzles me is how you think I could help, bearing in mind my current financial predicament.’

‘We thought that as the auction had raised nearly a million pounds …’ began Elizabeth.

‘Far higher than was estimated,’ chipped in Hugh.

‘We hoped you might tell Mr Botts you’d decided to keep the piece; and of course we would confirm that that was acceptable to us.’

‘I’m sure you would,’ said Cornelius, ‘but that still doesn’t solve the problem of owing the auctioneer PS16,500, and a possible further loss if it fails to reach PS110,000 in three months’ time.’

Neither Elizabeth nor Hugh spoke.

‘Do you have anything you could sell to help raise the money?’ Cornelius eventually asked.

‘Only our house, and that already has a large mortgage on it,’ said Elizabeth.

‘But what about your shares in the company? If you sold them, I’m sure they would more than cover the cost.’

‘But who would want to buy them,’ asked Hugh, ‘when we’re only just breaking even?’

‘I would,’ said Cornelius.

Both of them looked surprised. ‘And in exchange for your shares,’ Cornelius continued, ‘I would release you from your debt to me, and also settle any embarrassment with Mr Botts.’

Elizabeth began to protest, but Hugh asked, ‘Is there any alternative?’

‘Not that I can think of,’ said Cornelius.

‘Then I don’t see that we’re left with much choice,’ said Hugh, turning to his wife.

‘But what about all those years we’ve put into the company?’ wailed Elizabeth.

‘The shop hasn’t been showing a worthwhile profit for some time, Elizabeth, and you know it. If we don’t accept Cornelius’s offer, we could be paying off the debt for the rest of our lives.’

Elizabeth remained unusually silent.

‘Well, that seems to be settled,’ said Cornelius. ‘Why don’t you just pop round and have a word with my solicitor? He’ll see that everything is in order.’

‘And will you sort out Mr Botts?’ asked Elizabeth.

‘The moment you’ve signed over the shares, I’ll deal with the problem of Mr Botts. I’m confident we can have everything settled by the end of the week.’

Hugh bowed his head.

‘And I think it might be wise,’ continued Cornelius - they both looked up and stared apprehensively at him - ‘if Hugh were to remain on the board of the company as Chairman, with the appropriate remuneration.’

‘Thank you,’ said Hugh, shaking hands with his brother. ‘That’s generous of you in the circumstances.’ As they returned down the corridor Cornelius stared at the portrait of his son once again.

‘Have you managed to find somewhere to live?’ asked Elizabeth.

‘It looks as if that won’t be a problem after all, thank you, Elizabeth. I’ve had an offer for The Willows far in excess of the price I’d anticipated, and what with the windfall from the auction, I’ll be able to pay off all my creditors, leaving me with a comfortable sum over.’

‘Then why do you need our shares?’ asked Elizabeth, swinging back to face him.

‘For the same reason you wanted my Louis XIV table, my dear,’ said Cornelius as he opened the front door to show them out. ‘Goodbye Hugh,’ he added as Elizabeth got into the car.

Cornelius would have returned to the house, but he spotted Margaret coming up the drive in her new car, so he stood and waited for her. When she brought the little Audi to a halt, Cornelius opened the car door to allow her to step out.

‘Good morning, Margaret,’ he said as he accompanied her up the steps and into the house. ‘How nice to see you back at The Willows. I can’t remember when you were last here.’

‘I’ve made a dreadful mistake,’ his sister admitted, long before they had reached the kitchen.

Cornelius refilled the kettle and waited for her to tell him something he already knew.

‘I won’t beat about the bush, Cornelius. You see, I had no idea there were two Turners.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Cornelius matter-of-factly. ‘Joseph Mallord William Turner, arguably the finest painter ever to hail from these shores, and William Turner of Oxford, no relation, and although painting at roughly the same period, certainly not in the same league as the master.’

‘But I didn’t realise that …’ Margaret repeated. ‘So I ended up paying far too much for the wrong Turner - not helped by my sister-in-law’s antics,’ she added.

‘Yes, I was fascinated to read in the morning paper that you’ve got yourself into the Guinness Book of Records for having paid a record price for the artist.’

‘A record I could have done without,’ said Margaret. ‘I was rather hoping you might feel able to have a word with Mr Botts, and …’

‘And what … ?’ asked Cornelius innocently, as he poured his sister a cup of tea.

‘Explain to him that it was all a terrible mistake.’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible, my dear. You see, once the hammer has come down, the sale is completed. That’s the law of the land.’

‘Perhaps you could help me out by paying for the picture,’ Margaret suggested. ‘After all, the papers are saying you made nearly a million pounds from the auction alone.’

‘But I have so many other commitments to consider,’ said Cornelius with a sigh. ‘Don’t forget that once The Willows is sold, I will have to find somewhere else to live.’

‘But you could always come and stay with me …’

‘That’s the second such offer I’ve had this morning,’ said Cornelius, ‘and as I explained to Elizabeth, after being turned down by both of you earlier, I have had to make alternative arrangements.’

‘Then I’m ruined,’ said Margaret dramatically, ‘because I don’t have PS10,000, not to mention the 15 per cent. Something else I didn’t know about. You see, I’d hoped to make a small profit by putting the painting back up for sale at Christie’s.’

The truth at last, thought Cornelius. Or perhaps half the truth.

‘Cornelius, you’ve always been the clever one in the family,’ Margaret said, with tears welling up in her eyes. ‘Surely you can think of a way out of this dilemma.’

Cornelius paced around the kitchen as if in deep thought, his sister watching his every step. Eventually he came to a halt in front of her. ‘I do believe I may have a solution.’

‘What is it?’ cried Margaret. ‘I’ll agree to anything.’

‘Anything?’

‘Anything,’ she repeated.

‘Good, then I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll pay for the picture in exchange for your new car.’

Margaret remained speechless for some time. ‘But the car cost me PS12,000,’ she said finally.

‘Possibly, but you wouldn’t get more than eight thousand for it second-hand.’

‘But then how would I get around?’

‘Try the bus,’ said Cornelius. ‘I can recommend it. Once you’ve mastered the timetable it changes your whole life.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘In fact, you could start right now; there’s one due in about ten minutes.’

‘But …’ said Margaret as Cornelius stretched out his open hand. Then, letting out a long sigh, she opened her handbag and passed the car keys over to her brother.

‘Thank you,’ said Cornelius. ‘Now I mustn’t hold you up any longer, or you’ll miss the bus, and there won’t be another one along for thirty minutes.’ He led his sister out of the kitchen and down the corridor. He smiled as he opened the door for her.

‘And don’t forget to pick up the picture from Mr Botts, my dear,’ he said. ‘It will look wonderful over the fireplace in your drawing room, and will bring back so many happy memories of our times together.’

Margaret didn’t comment as she turned to walk off down the long drive.

Cornelius closed the door and was about to go to his study and call Frank to brief him on what had taken place that morning when he thought he heard a noise coming from the kitchen. He changed direction and headed back down the corridor. He walked into the kitchen, went over to the sink, bent down and kissed Pauline on the cheek.

‘Good morning, Pauline,’ he said.

‘What’s that for?’ she asked, her hands immersed in soapy water.

‘For bringing my son back home.’

‘It’s only on loan. If you don’t behave yourself, it goes straight back to my place.’

Cornelius smiled. ‘That reminds me - I’d like to take you up on your original offer.’

‘What are you talking about, Mr Barrington?’

‘You told me that you’d rather work off the debt than have to sell your car.’ He removed her cheque from an inside pocket. ‘I know just how many hours you’ve worked here over the past month,’ he said, tearing the cheque in half, ‘so let’s call it quits.’

‘That’s very kind of you, Mr Barrington, but I only wish you’d told me that before I sold the car.’

‘That’s not a problem, Pauline, because I find myself the proud owner of a new car.’

‘But how?’ asked Pauline as she began to dry her hands.

‘It was an unexpected gift from my sister,’ Cornelius said, without further explanation.

‘But you don’t drive, Mr Barrington.’

‘I know. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll swap it for the picture of Daniel.’

‘But that’s not a fair exchange, Mr Barrington. I only paid PS50 for the picture, and the car must be worth far more.’

‘Then you’ll also have to agree to drive me into town from time to time.’

‘Does that mean I’ve got my old job back?’

‘Yes - if you’re willing to give up your new one.’

‘I don’t have a new one,’ said Pauline with a sigh. ‘They found someone a lot younger than me the day before I was due to begin.’

Cornelius threw his arms around her.

‘And we’ll have less of that for a start, Mr Barrington.’

Cornelius took a pace back. ‘Of course you can have your old job back, and with a rise in salary.’

‘Whatever you consider is appropriate, Mr Barrington. After all, the labourer is worthy of his hire.’

Cornelius somehow stopped himself from laughing.

‘Does this mean all the furniture will be coming back to The Willows?’

‘No, Pauline. This house has been far too large for me since Millie’s death. I should have realised that some time ago. I’m going to move out and look for something smaller.’

‘I could have told you to do that years ago,’ Pauline said. She hesitated. ‘But will that nice Mr Vintcent still be coming to supper on Thursday evenings?’

‘Until one of us dies, that’s for sure,’ said Cornelius with a chuckle.

‘Well, I can’t stand around all day chattering, Mr Barring-ton. After all, a woman’s work is never done.’

‘Quite so,’ said Cornelius, and quickly left the kitchen. He walked back through the hall, picked up the package, and took it through to his study.

He had removed only the outer layer of wrapping paper when the phone rang. He put the package to one side and picked up the receiver to hear Timothy’s voice.

‘It was good of you to come to the auction, Timothy. I appreciated that.’

‘I’m only sorry that my funds didn’t stretch to buying you the chess set, Uncle Cornelius.’

‘If only your mother and aunt had shown the same restraint …’

‘I’m not sure I understand, Uncle.’

‘It’s not important,’ said Cornelius. ‘So, what can I do for you, young man?’

‘You’ve obviously forgotten that I said I’d come over and read the rest of that story to you - unless of course you’ve already finished it.’

‘No, I’d quite forgotten about it, what with the drama of the last few days. Why don’t you come round tomorrow evening, then we can have supper as well. And before you groan, the good news is that Pauline is back.’

‘That’s excellent news, Uncle Cornelius. I’ll see you around eight tomorrow.’

‘I look forward to it,’ said Cornelius. He replaced the receiver and returned to the half-opened package. Even before he had removed the final layer of paper, he knew exactly what was inside. His heart began beating faster. He finally raised the lid of the heavy wooden box and stared down at the thirty-two exquisite ivory pieces. There was a note inside: ‘A small appreciation for all your kindness over the years. Hugh.’

Then he recalled the face of the woman who had slipped past him at the auction house. Of course, it had been his brother’s secretary. The second time he had misjudged someone.

‘What an irony,’ he said out loud. ‘If Hugh had put the set up for sale at Sotheby’s, he could have held on to the Louis XIV table and had the same amount left over. Still, as Pauline would have said, it’s the thought that counts.’

He was writing a thank-you note to his brother when the phone rang again. It was Frank, reliable as ever, reporting in on his meeting with Hugh.

‘Your brother has signed all the necessary documents, and the shares have been transferred as requested.’

‘That was quick work,’ said Cornelius.

‘The moment you gave me instructions last week, I had all the legal papers drawn up. You’re still the most impatient client I have. Shall I bring the share certificates round on Thursday evening?’

‘No,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’ll drop in this afternoon and pick them up. That is, assuming Pauline is free to drive me into town.’

‘Am I missing something?’ asked Frank, sounding a little bewildered.

‘Don’t worry, Frank. I’ll bring you up to date when I see you on Thursday evening.’

 

Timothy arrived at The Willows a few minutes after eight the following evening. Pauline immediately put him to work peeling potatoes.

‘How are your mother and father?’ asked Cornelius, probing to discover how much the boy knew.

‘They seem fine, thank you Uncle. By the way, my father’s offered me the job of shop manager. I begin on the first of next month.’

‘Congratulations,’ said Cornelius. ‘I’m delighted. When did he make the offer?’

‘Some time last week,’ replied Timothy.

Which day?’

‘Is it important?’ asked Timothy.

‘I think it might be,’ replied Cornelius, without explanation.

The young man remained silent for some time, before he finally said, ‘Yes, it was Saturday evening, after I’d seen you.’ He paused. ‘I’m not sure Mum’s all that happy about it. I meant to write and let you know, but as I was coming back for the auction, I thought I’d tell you in person. But then I didn’t get a chance to speak to you.’

‘So he offered you the job before the auction took place?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Timothy. ‘Nearly a week before.’ Once again, the young man looked quizzically at his uncle, but still no explanation was forthcoming.

Pauline placed a plate of roast beef in front of each of them as Timothy began to reveal his plans for the company’s future.

‘Mind you, although Dad will remain as Chairman,’ he said, ‘he’s promised not to interfere too much. I was wondering, Uncle Cornelius, now that you own 1 per cent of the company, whether you would be willing to join the board?’

Cornelius looked first surprised, then delighted, then doubtful.

‘I could do with your experience,’ added Timothy, ‘if I’m to go ahead with my expansion plans.’

‘I’m not sure your father would consider it a good idea to have me on the board,’ said Cornelius, with a wry smile.

‘I can’t think why not,’ said Timothy. ‘After all, it was his idea in the first place.’

Cornelius remained silent for some time. He hadn’t expected to go on learning more about the players after the game was officially over.

‘I think the time has come for us to go upstairs and find out if it’s Simon Kerslake or Raymond Gould who becomes Prime Minister,’ he eventually said.

Timothy waited until his uncle had poured himself a large brandy and lit a cigar - his first for a month - before he started to read.

He became so engrossed in the story that he didn’t look up again until he had turned the last page, where he found an envelope sellotaped to the inside of the book’s cover. It was addressed to ‘Mr Timothy Barrington’.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

Cornelius would have told him, but he had fallen asleep.

 

The doorbell rang at eight, as it did every Thursday evening. When Pauline opened the door, Frank handed her a large bunch of flowers.

‘Oh, Mr Barrington will appreciate those,’ she said. ‘I’ll put them in the library.’

‘They’re not for Mr Barrington,’ said Frank, with a wink.

‘I’m sure I don’t know what’s come over you two gentlemen,’ Pauline said, scurrying away to the kitchen.

As Frank dug into a second bowl of Irish stew, Cornelius warned him that it could be their last meal together at The Willows.

‘Does that mean you’ve sold the house?’ Frank asked, looking up.

‘Yes. We exchanged contracts this afternoon, but on the condition that I move out immediately. After such a generous offer, I’m in no position to argue.’

And how’s the search for a new place coming along?’

‘I think I’ve found the ideal house, and once the surveyors have given the all clear, I’ll be putting an offer in. I’ll need you to push the paperwork through as quickly as possible so that I’m not homeless for too long.’

‘I certainly will,’ said Frank, ‘but in the meantime, you’d better come and camp out with me. I’m all too aware what the alternatives are.’

‘The local pub, Elizabeth or Margaret,’ said Cornelius, with a grin. He raised his glass. ‘Thank you for the offer. I accept.’

‘But there’s one condition,’ said Frank.

‘And what might that be?’ asked Cornelius.

‘That Pauline comes as part of the package, because I have no intention of spending all my spare time tidying up after you.’

‘What do you think about that, Pauline?’ asked Cornelius as she began to clear away the plates.

‘I’m willing to keep house for both of you gentlemen, but only for one month. Otherwise you’d never move out, Mr Barrington.’

‘I’ll make sure there are no hold-ups with the legal work, I promise,’ said Frank.

Cornelius leant across to him conspiratorially. ‘She hates lawyers, you know, but I do think she’s got a soft spot for you.’

‘That may well be the case, Mr Barrington, but it won’t stop me leaving after a month, if you haven’t moved into your new house.’

‘I think you’d better put down that deposit fairly quickly,’ said Frank. ‘Good houses come on the market all the time, good housekeepers rarely.’

‘Isn’t it time you two gentlemen got on with your game?’

‘Agreed,’ said Cornelius. ‘But first, a toast.’

‘Who to?’ asked Frank.

‘Young Timothy,’ said Cornelius, raising his glass, ‘who will start as Managing Director of Barrington’s, Chudley, on the first of the month.’

‘To Timothy,’ said Frank, raising his glass.

‘You know he’s asked me to join the board,’ said Cornelius.

‘You’ll enjoy that, and he’ll benefit from your experience. But it still doesn’t explain why you gave him all your shares in the company, despite him failing to secure the chess set for you.’

‘That’s precisely why I was willing to let him take control of the company. Timothy, unlike his mother and father, didn’t allow his heart to rule his head.’

Frank nodded his approval as Cornelius drained the last drop of wine from the one glass they allowed themselves before a game.

‘Now, I feel I ought to warn you,’ said Cornelius as he rose from his place, ‘that the only reason you have won the last three encounters in a row is simply because I have had other things on my mind. Now that those matters have been resolved, your run of luck is about to come to an end.’

‘We shall see,’ said Frank, as they marched down the long corridor together. The two men stopped for a moment to admire the portrait of Daniel.

‘How did you get that back?’ asked Frank.

‘I had to strike a mean bargain with Pauline, but we both ended up with what we wanted.’

‘But how … ?’ began Frank.

‘It’s a long story,’ Cornelius replied, ‘and I’ll tell you the details over a brandy after I’ve won the game.’

Cornelius opened the library door and allowed his friend to enter ahead of him, so that he could observe his reaction. When the inscrutable lawyer saw the chess set laid out before him, he made no comment, but simply walked across to the far side of the table, took his usual place and said, ‘Your move first, if I remember correctly.’

‘You’re right,’ said Cornelius, trying to hide his irritation. He pushed his queen’s pawn to Q4.

‘Back to an orthodox opening gambit. I see I shall have to concentrate tonight.’

They had been playing for about an hour, no word having passed between them, when Cornelius could bear it no longer. ‘Are you not in the least bit curious to discover how I came back into possession of the chess set?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Frank, his eyes remaining fixed on the board. ‘Not in the least bit.’

‘But why not, you old dullard?’

‘Because I already know,’ Frank said as he moved his queen’s bishop across the board.

‘How can you possibly know?’ demanded Cornelius, who responded by moving a knight back to defend his king.

Frank smiled. ‘You forget that Hugh is also my client,’ he said, moving his king’s rook two squares to the right.

Cornelius smiled. ‘And to think he need never have sacrificed his shares, if he had only known the true value of the chess set.’ He returned his queen to its home square.

‘But he did know its true value,’ said Frank, as he considered his opponent’s last move.

‘How could he possibly have found out, when you and I were the only people who knew?’

‘Because I told him,’ said Frank matter-of-factly.

‘But why would you do that?’ asked Cornelius, staring across at his oldest friend.

‘Because it was the only way I could find out if Hugh and Elizabeth were working together.’

‘So why didn’t he bid for the set in the morning auction?’

‘Precisely because he didn’t want Elizabeth to know what he was up to. Once he discovered that Timothy was also hoping to purchase the set in order to give it back to you, he remained silent.’

‘But he could have kept bidding once Timothy had fallen out.’

‘No, he couldn’t. He had agreed to bid for the Louis XIV table, if you recall, and that was the last item to come under the hammer.’

‘But Elizabeth failed to get the long-case clock, so she could have bid for it.’

‘Elizabeth is not my client,’ said Frank, as he moved his queen across the board. ‘So she never discovered the chess set’s true value. She believed what you had told her - that at best it was worth a few hundred pounds - which is why Hugh instructed his secretary to bid for the set in the afternoon.’

‘Sometimes you can miss the most obvious things, even when they are staring you right in the face,’ said Cornelius, pushing his rook five squares forward.

‘I concur with that judgement,’ said Frank, moving his queen across to take Cornelius’s rook. He looked up at his opponent and said, ‘I think you’ll find that’s checkmate.’

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