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 ￡100,000. 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.’[email protected]@@@[email protected]@@@@=======
‘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.