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The Endgame Jeffrey Archer 2022/7/22 14:06:13

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.

‘£450, sir,’ she replied.

Mr Botts called Cornelius later that evening to inform him that the afternoon sale had raised £902,800 – 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.