Page 1 of The Endgame

CORNELIUS BARRINGTON hesitated before he made his next move. He continued to study the board with great interest. The game had been going on for over two hours, and Cornelius was confident that he was only seven moves away from checkmate. He suspected that his opponent was also aware of the fact.

Cornelius looked up and smiled across at Frank Vintcent, who was not only his oldest friend but had over the years, as the family solicitor, proved to be his wisest adviser. The two men had many things in common: their age, both over sixty; their background, both middle-class sons of professionals; they had been educated at the same school and at the same university. But there the similarities ended. For Cornelius was by nature an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, who had made his fortune mining in South Africa and Brazil. Frank was a solicitor by profession, cautious, slow to decision, fascinated by detail.

Cornelius and Frank also differed in their physical appearance. Cornelius was tall, heavily built, with a head of silver hair many men half his age would have envied. Frank was slight, of medium stature, and apart from a semicircle of grey tufts, was almost completely bald.

Cornelius had been widowed after four decades of happy married life. Frank was a confirmed bachelor.

Among the things that had kept them close friends was their enduring love of chess. Frank joined Cornelius at The Willows for a game every Thursday evening, and the result usually remained in the balance, often ending in stalemate.

The evening always began with a light supper, but only one glass of wine each would be poured – the two men took their chess seriously – and after the game was over they would return to the drawing room to enjoy a glass of brandy and a cigar; but tonight Cornelius was about to shatter that routine.

‘Congratulations,’ said Frank, looking up from the board. ‘I think you’ve got me beaten this time. I’m fairly sure there’s no escape.’ He smiled, placed the red king flat on the board, rose from his place and shook hands with his closest friend.

‘Let’s go through to the drawing room and have a brandy and a cigar,’ suggested Cornelius, as if it were a novel idea.

‘Thank you,’ said Frank as they left the study and strolled towards the drawing room. As Cornelius passed the portrait of his son Daniel, his heart missed a beat – something that hadn’t changed for the past twenty-three years. If his only child had lived, he would never have sold the company.

As they entered the spacious drawing room the two men were greeted by a cheerful fire blazing in the grate, which had been laid by Cornelius’s housekeeper Pauline only moments after she had finished clearing up their supper. Pauline also believed in the virtues of routine, but her life too was about to be shattered.

‘I should have trapped you several moves earlier,’ said Cornelius, ‘but I was taken by surprise when you captured my queen’s knight. I should have seen that coming,’ he added, as he strolled over to the sideboard. Two large cognacs and two Monte Cristo cigars had been laid out on a silver tray. Cornelius picked up the cigar-clipper and passed it across to his friend, then struck a match, leaned over and watched Frank puff away until he was convinced his cigar was alight. He then completed the same routine himself before sinking into his favourite seat by the fire.

Frank raised his glass. ‘Well played, Cornelius,’ he said, offering a slight bow, although his host would have been the first to acknowledge that over the years his guest was probably just ahead on points.

Cornelius allowed Frank to take a few more puffs before shattering his evening. Why hurry? After all, he had been preparing for this moment for several weeks, and was unwilling to share the secret with his oldest friend until everything was in place.

They both remained silent for some time, relaxed in each other’s company. Finally Cornelius placed his brandy on a side table and said, ‘Frank, we have been friends for over fifty years. Equally importantly, as my legal adviser you have proved to be a shrewd advocate. In fact, since the untimely death of Millicent there has been no one I rely on more.’

Frank continued to puff away at his cigar without interrupting his friend. From the expression on his face, he was aware that the compliment was nothing more than an opening gambit. He suspected he would have to wait some time before Cornelius revealed his next move.

‘When I first set up the company some thirty years ago, it was you who was responsible for executing the original deeds; and I don’t believe I’ve signed a legal document since that day which has not crossed your desk – something that was unquestionably a major factor in my success.’

‘It’s generous of you to say so,’ said Frank, before taking another sip of brandy, ‘but the truth is that it was always your originality and enterprise that made it possible for the company to go from strength to strength – gifts that the gods decided not to bestow on me, leaving me with little choice but to be a mere functionary.’

‘You have always underestimated your contribution to the company’s success, Frank, but I am in no doubt of the role you played over the years.’

‘Where is this all leading?’ asked Frank with a smile.

‘Patience, my friend,’ said Cornelius. ‘I still have a few moves to make before I reveal the stratagem I have in mind.’ He leaned back and took another long puff of his cigar. ‘As you know, when I sold the company some four years ago, it had been my intention to slow down for the first time in years. I had promised to take Millie on an extended holiday to India and the Far East – ’ he paused ‘ – but that was not to be.’

Frank nodded his head in understanding.

‘Her death served to remind me that I am also mortal, and may myself not have much longer to live.’

‘No, no, my friend,’ protested Frank. ‘You still have a good many years to go yet.’

‘You may be right,’ said Cornelius, ‘although funnily enough it was you who made me start to think seriously about the future . . .’

‘Me?’ said Frank, looking puzzled.

‘Yes. Don’t you remember some weeks ago, sitting in that chair and advising me that the time had come for me to consider rewriting my will?’

‘Yes, I do,’ said Frank, ‘but that was only because in your present will virtually everything is left to Millie.’