Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #The End Game
It was already a name of power in the City.
Brandreth had added, “If it’s any comfort to you, you might like to know that he took us over a couple of years ago.”
“What’s in it for Blackett?”
“If he makes the same arrangement with you as he did with us, he won’t even ask for a seat on the Board. He’ll sign himself up as a consultant to your company. At a good fee.”
“And absorb all our profits.”
“Wait for it. The arrangement is that he doesn’t get a penny of fee until he has at least doubled your turnover
Toby had known that he was going to have to say yes. The decision was a simple one. Whether to remain captain of a sinking ship or sign on as first mate of a ship which had a prospect of staying afloat. The deciding factor had been that if Harmonds did go down, his father’s pension would go with it. His father was enjoying his retirement, down in Hampshire, in a farmhouse which had some fishing rights. He caught few fish, but was very happy.
In the event, it had not turned out as badly as Toby had feared. The dreaded Blackett had intervened very little, so far, in the running of the company, and all his interventions had been helpful. For the most part they had consisted of suggesting new outlets for Harmond products. Outlets, Toby suspected, in which Blackett also held a partial or a controlling interest. The only feature of the new regime which he found oppressive was the half-yearly report.
This was an extensive document, covering every aspect of the company’s business. The factual bits he could fill in easily enough with the assistance of his chief accountant. It was the two blank pages at the end which baffled him. One was headed “Prospects,” the other “Ideas.” On the first occasion he had written, “Prospects good. Ideas—none,” and had been tersely informed, by Blackett in person, that this was not good enough.
The two blank pages began to haunt him. He had never been good at expressing himself on paper and had never troubled to analyse the
of his business. Now he had to do both and had to do it every six months.
“You’re a girl with ideas,” he said to Susan. “Why don’t you do it?”
“It’s not my job.”
“Just for this once.”
“You’ve been at this all your working life. I’ve been here exactly three months.”
“Exactly. You’ll be bringing a fresh mind to it. Come out to lunch and we’ll talk about it.”
Over lunch they talked about it. And about other things. Susan had suspected for some time that Toby was working up to a proposal of marriage. He was not a young man who concealed his feelings. She hoped he never got into a game of high-stakes poker.
The eating place he had chosen had those tall wooden pews which were a pain in the neck for the waiters, but gave diners a lot of privacy. They had been late starters and by the time they reached the coffee stage the place was nearly empty. For some minutes now Toby had been wearing the determined look of an infantryman about to go over the top.
He said, “Susan.”
“Yes, Mr Harmond.”
“We’re not in the office now, remember.”
“There’s something I want to ask you.”
“There’s something I want to ask you, first.”
Toby looked deflated. It was as though the attack had been called off at the last moment.
“Why are you scared of Blackett?”
This had the hoped-for effect. Toby said, “Scared? I’m not scared of him. Who said I was scared of him?”
“Then why do you look like a dog threatened with a bath when this half-yearly report form arrives?”
Come to think of it, he was almost exactly like a golden Labrador they had had when she was young: large, friendly and without an ounce of guile.
“It’s a bore,” said Toby. “I can never think of anything new to say.” At least, his mind seemed to be veering away from proposals of marriage. “I can put in all the guff in the first part. It’s the Prospects and Ideas bit which buffaloes me. I think you might lend a hand with it. After all, you are my secretary.”
“I might be able to work out what Blackett wants if I had any idea what sort of man he was.”
Toby took a lump of sugar out of the bowl and ate it to assist thought. He said, “I don’t really know a lot about him. Everyone says he’s a wonderful chap, and they must be right when you think what he’s done. He’s a sort of water diviner. He goes round with his hazel rod looking for money. When the rod gives a twitch, he knows he’s on to something worth backing and he backs it for all he’s worth.”
“Money and connections and advice.”
Susan caught the waiter’s eye, and he refilled their coffee cups. Toby was safe for the next ten minutes. She said, “How did he start? Do you know?”
“Only what I’ve heard Brandreth talking about. He did a lot of different things immediately after the war. That was when he qualified as an accountant. And I think he spent some time in America. Then he started his own outfit, Argon Investments. He had a piece of the action in a property company run by a man called Woolf. Woolf died, and he bought out the widow. That’s when he really took off.”
“When was this?”
“About ten years ago.”
“I seem to remember that a lot of people lost a lot of money about then.”
“Not Blackett. He saw the crash in the property market coming and sold out before it happened. That’s what gave him his reputation in the City.”
a water diviner,” said Susan. “I do see that your essay on Prospects and Ideas would have to be something rather special.”
“You will lend a hand with it, won’t you?”
“I’ll think about it,” said Susan. “We shan’t get anything done by sitting here.”
“Have you found somewhere to live?” said Gerald.
“After one night spent walking the streets and a second night on a bench on the Embankment, in the shadow of Cleopatra’s Needle, inadequately covered by copies of the
“Stop talking nonsense. If you really haven’t anywhere to go, I could fix you a bed in my place.”
“You’re a true friend,” said David. “But I’m all right. I’ve organised myself a room in a small hotel not far from the Cromwell Road. I’ve got a pull with the landlady. I once saved her from a fate worse than death. I advised her not to cash a check for a respectable Scotsman who had been staying in the hotel. Her gratitude was immense and well deserved.”
“You talk so much nonsense,” said Gerald, “that I never really know whether to believe what you say or not.”
“It’s a form of self-protection practised by all oppressed minorities.”
“For God’s sake, don’t start talking about the Welsh again. Haven’t you got
work to do?”
“There is always work to do,” said David with a sigh. “I see it stretching ahead of me, mile after mile, a barren desert of toil. Every day, an oasis at the end of it. Talking of which,” he added more cheerfully, “what about coming out for a drink this evening?”
“Certainly not. You’re totally irresponsible. You nearly got into a fight last time. And do you know who that man you insulted was?”
“Father Bear or Mother Bear?”
“The fat one on the left. It was Tom Porteous.”
“I feel certain I should fall on my knees and beat my forehead three times on the floor at the mere mention of his name. Who is he?”
“He’s the senior partner in Ancrum, Porteous and Byfold. And he happens to be one of Sam Lyon’s pet clients. And an old friend into the bargain.”
“It’s a beautiful friendship, I’m sure. Based on bills regularly presented and regularly paid. If you won’t come out with me I’ll have to try and lead Fred Rowley astray.”
“You’ll have your work cut out.”
“Fortunately we both drink off the same handicap.”
The Reference Section of the Hammersmith Public Library, one of the best in London, stayed open late on certain weekdays. By hurrying home, Susan could rely on getting a full hour among its shelves of reference works, treatises, blue books and Government Reports. She made occasional notes, reading more than she wrote. From her French forebears she had inherited a hard analytical mind. She preferred facts to theories. She thought of facts as small, easily handled bricks. With them you could construct buildings: square, reliable buildings, with foundations which would carry the weight of their own superstructures without crumbling or cracking.
When the assistant, who knew her, said, “It’s past half past seven, Miss Condy,” she looked up in surprise.
“Goodness,” she said, “how time disappears when you’re interested in what you’re doing.”
“I don’t know what you can see in all that stuff,” said the assistant. “It looks dull to me.”
“It is dull,” said Susan. “Terribly dull. But terribly interesting, too, if you know what I mean.”
As the assistant was putting the books away, she examined the titles. They seemed to be mostly concerned with the printing trade.
She said to the supervisor, “You’d think a girl with her looks would have something better to do in the evenings than bury herself in this stuff.”
The supervisor, who was an amateur psychologist and a student of the columns in the papers which prescribe for other people’s troubles, said, “I expect she’s had a tiff with her boyfriend and is striving to forget.”
“Singles tonight,” said Fred Rowley. “And no hanging about.”
“You’re not feeling well?”
“I’m feeling fine. But I’m saving up to buy a new car.”
“I could introduce you to a man who’d sell you any new car you name for three-quarters of the list price.”
“Uninsured, unlicensed and stolen the week before.”
“That’s unworthy of you, Fred,” said David. “Just because you’ve a devious mind you mustn’t suppose that everyone else is on the fiddle.”
They were in the saloon bar of the Green Man, a much larger house than the Coat and Badge, with a mixed clientele. The bar was crowded, but by a bit of elbow work they had got themselves a table.
Rowley said, “What did Uncle Sambo want to see you about?”
“Our Miss Crawley reported that I had made an assault on her virgin fortress.”
“If you were brave enough to climb the wall, you’d find the garrison anxious to surrender, I guess.”
“Exactly what I told Sam. Repressed spinster. Vivid imagination.”
“You want to be careful, all the same. It was Crawley who got one of your predecessors the boot.”
“Chap called Dennis Moule. Five or six years ago.”
didn’t make a pass at her, surely.”
“No. This was drink. Took to drink when his fiancée was killed.”
“On Highgate Hill in a rain storm.”
“Right. How come—?”
“I read it. In a newspaper cutting inside an old file I was looking at. I happened to notice his initials on it. D.R.M. Same as mine. I didn’t know you were here when that happened.”
“Was I not? It was the sort of day you don’t forget in a hurry. February fourteenth, St. Valentine’s Day. It started raining at nine in the morning and it never bloody stopped. Low black clouds, like the end of the world was coming and not just raining. Pouring, solid, like someone up there had pulled the plug and was emptying a bath over you. I’d seen something like it in Burma before. Never in England.”
“Keep my seat and I’ll get another drink. Thinking about all that water—very depressing—you need something to cheer you up.”
He fought his way to the bar and returned, managing to carry two glasses of whisky in one hand and two pints of beer in the other. Some of the beer failed to survive the journey.
“Go on,” he said. “What happened next?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The St. Valentine’s Day massacre.”
“Oh, ah, that.” Fred lowered half his beer and said, “There was a lot of fuss going on all day. Something to do with one of our spot customers. Mr Mantegna looked after him. A man called Blackett.”
“That’s right. You can’t hardly open a paper nowadays without seeing he’s bought up some other outfit. Seems to collect ‘em like cigarette cards. Not that he was much then, but I’m talking about some years ago. Well, like I was saying, there was some panic on. Mr Mantegna said we
get hold of him. Had all of us telephoning round. I tried his partner, in the property business, Harry Woolf. He was away ill. Died a few months later, I seem to remember. Then Miss Blaney, his secretary, got through to another director, Colonel Paterson. Found him at his club. He said he thought Blackett was up in North London, visiting different people. If it was all that urgent, he said, he’d bring his car round and pick up Mr Mantegna, and they’d go after him. No chance of a taxi in that weather. Have you noticed? As soon as it starts raining and you need a taxi, they all disappear.”
“I’ve noticed it,” said David patiently. “What happened next?”
“The next thing was the Colonel turned up, looking big and red and cheerful. Not drunk, mind you. He’d had a good long lunch and one or two afterwards to top it up. You notice a lot of people who’d been in Jap prison camps were like that. As if they felt they’d got three or four years of drinking time to make up. Anyway, there he was with his car, and he said why didn’t Miss Blaney come with them? She lived up Highgate way, and the weather being what it was, of course she said yes. Funny how making a little decision like that turns out the way it does.”
Fred lowered the other half of the beer whilst he considered the philosophy of cause and effect.
David said, “Just how do you mean, exactly?”
“What I mean is, if she hadn’t gone she wouldn’t have been killed, and if she hadn’t been killed she’d have married Dennis Moule and she’d have kept him on the straight and narrow, and he’d still be working for the old firm. Might be a partner by now.”
happen to him?”
“Search me. I remember we got him a job as cashier with a firm that ran Continental tours. Office in Bloomsbury. I’m off. Buy the first round next time.”