Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #The End Game
There was no fight. Three reciprocal rounds later, Morgan and Hopkirk were walking up Lower Thames Street in search of a taxi. No taxis appeared.
“We’d better take the Underground,” said Morgan.
“We’re going to be late,” said Hopkirk.
“Never do things by halves,” said Morgan. “If we’re going to be late, let’s be thoroughly late. I know a sweet little place, just down here to the left—”
” said Hopkirk.
They were very late, and Susan was very angry. She said, “You might have telephoned. The soup’s boiled over twice, and the meat will be like old leather.”
“Nothing that you have cooked could possibly be like old leather.”
“I suppose you’ve been on a pub-crawl. Take your hands off me and wash them.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Hopkirk. “I tried to get him back in reasonable time, but it was a losing battle.”
Susan was not placated. She said, “Just because David is a selfish pig, there’s no need to play up to him.”
After an uncomfortable meal, at which most of the conversation was supplied by David, Susan went out to the kitchen to make the coffee, and Gerald said, “I think I won’t wait for coffee. I’ll be buzzing off now.”
“Don’t be a rat. You can’t push off and leave me.”
“I think I must.”
“Have your coffee first. The worst is over.”
David was wrong. When Susan came back, the banked-up fires burst into yellow flame. She said, addressing her remarks pointedly to Gerald, “Did you have a very tiring day at the office? Sugar? Milk?”
“Fairly tiring. Sugar, thank you. No milk.” Gerald stirred his coffee energetically.
“I expect you like getting home in the evening and relaxing.”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“You have a service flat, I believe. With its own restaurant. That must be very convenient.”
“Oh, it is. Very.”
“So you can please yourself what time you get in.”
“I see.” Susan looked out of the corner of her eye at David, who was also stirring his coffee. “So if you rolled in drunk at nine thirty, you’d still get something to eat?”
“I expect they’d scratch up some sort of meal.”
“But then, it’s different when you’re living somewhere on a commercial basis. I mean, when you’re paying your way.”
“That’s right. I think I ought to be moving along now.”
Susan ignored this. She said, “You’d suppose, Gerald, that someone who was living somewhere at someone else’s expense would be even more considerate, don’t you think?”
“If you mean me,” said David, “why not say so. Someone! Somewhere! Someone else! For Christ’s sake, stop wrapping it up. What you’re saying is that I scrounge on you.”
He had gone very red.
“Since I pay the rent of this flat and the rates and the cleaning woman and the electricity and the gas, and you occasionally chip in for the groceries, yes, I suppose you could put it that way.”
“I’m an incumbrance. And you want to get rid of me. Is that right?”
“I didn’t say so. I was simply stating some facts. More coffee, Gerald?”
“You don’t have to say it twice,” said David, “you’ve made your meaning quite plain. I can take a hint as well as the next man.”
He got out of his chair, upsetting his coffee cup as he did so, stumped across to the door and went out. Gerald said, “Let me mop that up before it ruins the table,” and shot out into the kitchen to fetch a cloth. When he came back with it, Susan was standing beside the table.
She said, “Thank you, Gerald. I’ll do that.” Her face was rather white, but otherwise she seemed unmoved. She mopped up the spilt coffee, poured herself out another cup and said to Gerald, “You might as well have one. You can’t go now.”
They could hear David bumping round in the bedroom.
“What’s he going to do?”
“He really means it, then.”
“Means to go.”
“He always means to go. The last time – let me see, that was about six months ago – he stayed away for a whole month. A very useful month as far as I was concerned. I got the flat spring-cleaned, chair covers, curtains and all.”
David reappeared. He was carrying a bulging kit bag. He said, “If you’ll be good enough to pack up my other things, I’ll send round for them.”
Gerald half expected her to say, “Don’t be silly,” but anger still seemed to be bubbling underneath. She said, “Certainly. If you’ll let me know where to send them.”
David turned his back on her and said to Gerald, “Are you coming?”
“Well—I think—perhaps—” said Gerald unhappily, torn between the desire to get away and an effort not to be rude to his hostess.
“If you’re thinking of staying the night, Susan prefers to sleep on the right-hand side of the bed.”
Susan said, “He’s only being bitchy. I shouldn’t take any notice. If you’re going, David, just clear out quick.”
“It couldn’t be too quick as far as I’m concerned.”
“And don’t forget to leave your keys behind.”
David put his hand in his pocket, extracted a latch key and an outer-door key from his ring and threw them both on to the table. They slid off on to the floor between him and Susan. Neither of them looked down.
David shouldered his kit bag and marched out. They heard the front door slam.
Susan said, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like another cup of coffee? I could easily heat it up.”
“No, no,” said Gerald. “I really must be going. Thank you for the supper.”
“A pleasure,” said Susan.
“Not one of our better evenings,” said David. His eyes were red-rimmed, and the slur in his speech suggested that he had had little sleep; or maybe had already taken a stiffener to see him through the day. “I’m sorry I dragged you into it.”
“That’s all right,” said Gerald. “Does that sort of thing happen often?”
“From time to time. She gets over it.”
“I hope so, for your sake.”
“I’m not sure. There are advantages and disadvantages. Pros and cons, as you might say.”
“I should have thought it was all pro. A lovely pad and a lovely girl.”
“Do you think she’s lovely?”
“I certainly do. So, I should imagine, does every other chap who sets eyes on her.”
“She’s all right, I suppose. I mean, considered as a girl.”
“For God’s sake,” said Gerald. “Some people simply don’t know when they’re well off. If you don’t want her, I—”
“No,” said David quickly. “Don’t even think about it. I was only joking last night. It wouldn’t do. You’re not her sort. You’re much too serious.”
“All I was going to say,” said Gerald stiffly, “was that I imagined there would be no shortage of candidates to take your place.”
“What Susan needs is someone she can fight with. It’s her French ancestry. The Perronet-Condes were Huguenots. Of course they’ve been over here for a long time now, but you can see that look in her eye every now and then. St. Bartholomew’s Eve and all that.”
“The Huguenots didn’t kill the Catholics on St. Bartholomew’s Eve. It was the other way round. The Catholics killed them.”
“You mustn’t believe all you read in the history books, boyo. Slanted stuff. Up with the big nations, down with the small ones. Tell me one history book that’s fair to the Welsh!”
“The only people who are ever fair to the Welsh,” said Gerald, “are the Welsh. If you haven’t got any work to do, I have. Yes! Who is it? Come in, Rowley. What can I do for you?”
“I was looking for Mr Morgan. I thought I heard his voice.”
Fred Rowley had been a sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery and was the office manager. Morgan and he had tested each other’s drinking capacity in a number of stiff bouts, and neither being able to put the other down they had declared a state of friendly neutrality.
“What’s up, Fred?”
“Mr Lyon wants you.”
“To give me the good news, perhaps, that he intends to increase my inadequate remuneration.”
“I wouldn’t bank on it.” As they moved out into the passage he lowered his voice and said, “I saw Miss Crawley coming out of his room.”
“Creepy Crawley,” said Morgan. “Thank you, Fred, forewarned is forearmed.”
He knocked at the door and went in without waiting for an answer. Samuel Lyon was seated behind his impressive twin-pedestal desk pretending to sort through his morning post. He said, “Oh, Morgan—”
“You were wanting to speak to me,” said Morgan, seating himself uninvited in the clients’ chair beside the desk.
Mr Lyon said, “Yes—um. I did. Yes, I wanted a word with you.” He was fat, flabby and fifty. He looked as though a little less for lunch each day and a little gentle exercise in the evening might, though it was probably too late, stave off the heart attack which he was going to have when he was sixty.
He said, “I’ve just had Miss Crawley in here. She was complaining—that is, she told me that you had been intimate with her.”
Morgan opened his eyes so wide that his eyebrows almost seemed to merge with his hairline.
Lyon said hastily, “Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t implying intimacy in the—er—police court sense of the word.”
“I’m glad you don’t mean that,” said Morgan comfortably. “Because if you had, I should have been bound to wonder whether she was mad or I was. What exactly has she accused me of doing? Undressing her with my eyes, perhaps. Even that would take courage.”
“She says that you touched her.”
“On her, um, breast.”
“Where did this act of gallantry take place?”
“In Mr Hopkirk’s room, in the lunch hour, yesterday.”
Morgan reflected for a moment and then said, “Of course. It was the ladybird. Did she tell you about the ladybird?”
“Coming from I know not where, flying through the open window, it alighted on Miss Crawley’s blouse. Possibly it mistook the pattern of green and brown leaves for the thicket where it had abandoned its children. I thought it kind to remove it.”
“And that was all?”
“If Miss Crawley has led you to believe that anything of an improper nature took place, then I am afraid that she has allowed an overvivid imagination to run away with her.” He leaned forward in the chair and said, more seriously, “We both know how women—of a certain age—” He let the sentence hang.
Mr Lyon said, “Yes, well, it’s a possible explanation.” He seemed glad to leave the topic and move on to firmer ground. “That wasn’t the only thing I wanted to talk to you about. Your attendance record is far from good. Two days ago I wanted to look at one of your files and was told that you had not arrived. That was after ten o’clock.”
“A holdup on the Underground. We were kept waiting for twenty-five minutes between Chancery Lane and St. Paul’s. Several women fainted. You may have read about it in the papers.”
“I see,” said Mr Lyon drily. “As long as these holdups don’t occur too often. In an office like this, time is money.”
The events of the evening before, which had left their mark on David Morgan, did not seem to have affected Susan Perronet-Condé. She arrived at the office of M. N. Harmond Ltd. on the stroke of nine, looking her usual fresh, cheerful and composed self, and had been working for half an hour by the time Toby Harmond breezed in.
Toby was the great-grandson of the Michael Naysmith Harmond who had founded the firm midway through the reign of Queen Victoria, at a time when private enterprise had not yet learned to be ashamed of itself. The firm dealt in all varieties of printers’ ink. Its continuing prosperity had been based on the hard work and application of Francis Naysmith Harmond, Toby’s grandfather, and Edward Naysmith Harmond, Toby’s father.
By the fourth generation some of the enthusiasm had worn thin. Toby had played racquets and rugby football for Wellington and had recently discovered the joys of squash, at which he had become more than proficient. He had tried to lure Susan on to the court with him, so far without success.
She said, “I don’t see why I should sweat about retrieving impossible shots and losing every game nine-nil.”
“Good for your figure.”
“What’s wrong with my figure?”
“Nothing,” said Toby with enthusiasm. “Nothing at all. Suppose we give it a try this evening.”
“Squash. We could have dinner afterwards.”
“After half an hour on the court with you, I should be flat on my back.”
“An excellent idea,” said Toby. “You could come and lie flat on your back on my sofa whilst I cooked the supper.”
“This is no time for frivolity,” said Susan sternly. “The six-monthly report and marketing analysis is due.” She indicated a large buff envelope on the desk. Toby looked at it with distaste. He said, “We’ve just done one.”
“Six months ago.”
“It seems like yesterday.”
Two years before, Toby had given up the struggle to remain independent. The technical processes of ink manufacture, which had been simple in the days of Queen Victoria, had now become sophisticated and expensive. It was a sharply competitive market. To fall behind meant disaster. To keep up involved an increasing expenditure of capital which he did not possess. It was at this point that Martin Brandreth had arrived.
Toby knew Martin as the managing director of Sayborn Art Printers, one of the main purchasers of their inks. Brandreth had laid his proposition on the line without preamble. He said, “You’re undercapitalised. If you don’t do something about it your company will lose money again this year. As you have for the last two years, only more so. You can survive for another year or so on your reserves. After that, it’ll be a creditors’ liquidation.”
“That’s a lot of nonsense,” Toby had said. “You know nothing about it, and anyway what business is it of yours?”
“I know about it because I’ve read your published accounts. It’s my business because I’ve got a proposition for you. I can introduce you to a man who will buy a fifty-one per cent stake in your company. He can also find the money you need for new machinery.”
The only thing which had made Toby hesitate had been that he neither liked nor trusted Brandreth. He said, “Who’s the fairy godmother?”