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The Endgame Jeffrey Archer 2022/7/22 14:06:10

‘It is,’ said Hugh, a little too quickly. ‘What I meant to say was that we’re all having to work overtime just to keep our heads above water.’

‘I think I understand,’ said Cornelius. ‘Still, I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to help, now you’re fully aware of my situation.’ He put the phone down and smiled.

The next victim to contact him didn’t bother to phone, but arrived at the front door a few minutes later, and wouldn’t take her finger off the buzzer until the door had been opened.

‘Where’s Pauline?’ was Margaret’s first question when her brother opened the door. Cornelius stared down at his sister, who had put on a little too much make-up that morning.

‘I’m afraid she’s had to go,’ said Cornelius as he bent down to kiss his sister on the cheek. ‘The petitioner in bankruptcy takes a rather dim view of people who can’t afford to pay their creditors, but still manage to retain a personal entourage. It was considerate of you to pop round so quickly in my hour of need, Margaret, but if you were hoping for a cup of tea, I’m afraid you’ll have to make it yourself.’

‘I didn’t come round for a cup of tea, as I suspect you know only too well, Cornelius. What I want to know is how you managed to fritter away your entire fortune.’ Before her brother could deliver some well-rehearsed lines from his script, she added, ‘You’ll have to sell the house, of course. I’ve always said that since Millie’s death it’s far too large for you. You can always take a bachelor flat in the village.’

‘Such decisions are no longer in my hands,’ said Cornelius, trying to sound helpless.

‘What are you talking about?’ demanded Margaret, rounding on him.

‘Just that the house and its contents have already been seized by the petitioners in bankruptcy. If I’m to avoid going bankrupt, we must hope that the house sells for a far higher price than the estate agents are predicting.’

‘Are you telling me there’s absolutely nothing left?’

‘Less than nothing would be more accurate,’ said Cornelius, sighing. ‘And once they’ve evicted me from The Willows, I’ll have nowhere to go.’ He tried to sound plaintive. ‘So I was rather hoping that you would allow me to take up the kind offer you made at Millie’s funeral and come and live with you.’

His sister turned away, so that Cornelius was unable to see the expression on her face.

‘That wouldn’t be convenient at the present time,’ she said without explanation. ‘And in any case, Hugh and Elizabeth have far more spare rooms in their house than I do.’

‘Quite so,’ said Cornelius. He coughed. ‘And the small loan I advanced you last year, Margaret – I’m sorry to raise the subject, but . . .’

‘What little money I have is carefully invested, and my brokers tell me that this is not a time to sell.’

‘But the allowance I’ve provided every month for the past twenty years – surely you have a little salted away?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ Margaret replied. ‘You must understand that being your sister has meant I am expected to maintain a certain standard of living, and now that I can no longer rely on my monthly allowance, I shall have to be even more careful with my meagre income.’

‘Of course you will, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘But any little contribution would help, if you felt able . . .’

‘I must be off,’ said Margaret, looking at her watch. ‘You’ve already made me late for the hairdresser.’

‘Just one more little request before you go, my dear,’ said Cornelius. ‘In the past you’ve always been kind enough to give me a lift into town whenever . . .’

‘I’ve always said, Cornelius, that you should have learned to drive years ago. If you had, you wouldn’t expect everyone to be at your beck and call night and day. I’ll see what I can do,’ she added as he opened the door for her.

‘Funny, I don’t recall you ever saying that. But then, perhaps my memory is going as well,’ he said as he followed his sister out onto the drive. He smiled. ‘New car, Margaret?’ he enquired innocently.

‘Yes,’ his sister replied tartly as he opened the door for her. Cornelius thought he detected a slight colouring in her cheeks. He chuckled to himself as she drove off. He was learning more about his family by the minute.

Cornelius strolled back into the house, and returned to his study. He closed the door, picked up the phone on his desk and dialled Frank’s office.

‘Vintcent, Ellwood and Halfon,’ said a prim voice.

‘I’d like to speak to Mr Vintcent.’

‘Who shall I say is calling?’

‘Cornelius Barrington.’

‘I’ll have to see if he’s free, Mr Barrington.’

Very good, thought Cornelius. Frank must have convinced even his receptionist that the rumours were true, because in the past her response had always been, ‘I’ll put you straight through, sir.’