“Another Cognac?” Slurred Peter, waving the bottle at Oliver.
The lunch at the Fernway’s had been over for hours. After Basil and Diana had left, Peter and Oliver had retired to the library, knowing Clarissa maintained a well-stocked drinks trolley there. The ladies had remained at the table, discussing next season’s plans for the Ladies’ team at the village bowls club.
“Yeah, why not?”
“Remind me, Oliver, when’s the wine contract up for renewal?”
“Expires end of this month. I shall be meeting Saunders on Monday.”
“Tell me,” Peter leaned forward “any chance we can squeeze a bit more out of it?”
“Doubt it. I mean, I’m going to have a bloody good try,” Oliver went on, “but the problem is that the Pound’s weakened off recently and his own margins will be under pressure.”
“What about his sourcing some different wines for us at lower prices?”
“Look, leave it with me, Peter. I’ll see what I can do. Problem is, as you know damn well, we’re at near rock bottom with both price and quality already.”
“Maybe we should see Saunders together!”
Nigel closed the door to his office and sat back in his chair. It was beginning to be somewhat of a haven for him. He loved to gaze out at the view across York, to be surrounded by the physical, the historical side of Clara’s but free to let his thoughts wander. He had spent the morning with various members of the team hearing their views on the company and the improvements they thought could be made. Now, enjoying a sandwich he had brought up from the kitchens, he turned his mind to the major problem he faced. It was clear that both Rathbone and Chancellor would have to go. The problem was, although the arrangement they had set up was quite apparent to him now, proving fraud and embezzlement on the part of two family members was not going to be easy. He’d thought about getting the auditors in early to go through Clara’s accounts. But all they could do was simply highlight the margin problem. They also had a long-standing relationship with Peter Chancellor. Well, a change of auditor might be required but that was something for the future.
And, even if he were successful in ensuring the departure of those two, the resulting publicity could prove disastrous for the image of the company. And that was even without considering the animosity that would be triggered within the family.
The easiest, and the quickest decision would be simply for him to make the role of Purchasing Director redundant. The situation with the company’s finances was clear enough – it was suffering reduced profits and it called for urgent action. As part of the reorganisation, he would have the whole of the purchasing department report directly to him. Could he get Rathbone to retire early? He was 61 and the offer of a full pension should be attractive. But what about Chancellor? Could he make him redundant too? No, not possible. The pair of them would fight it tooth and nail and it would, inevitably, precipitate the same disastrous intra family upheaval. And that was without considering if the fraud has gone beyond the two of them – were other directors involved?
The more he thought about the situation, the less a clear solution seemed to be available to him. It was just gone one o’clock when his mobile rang, breaking his thoughts.
“Good morning, Nigel. Melissa here.”
“Good morning, Melissa! What a pleasure. But first, can I just assure you that there is absolutely no possibility whatsoever that I would fail to recognise those dulcet tones that are so evocative of your reality!”
“Flatterer! Listen, everything’s going well here in Chester and progressing to plan. I’m calling because I have something to ask you.” She hesitated.
“Well, I know that you said we should keep a low profile and you know we’re on the same page on that one. Everything’s going well and I can also assure you that your concept of a project handbook is coming together and I think that you’re going to be pleased with that.”
“What do you want to discuss then?”
“It’s thrilling to have the authority to get on with everything over here at Chester, it really is. But, to be honest, there are a hundred and one little things, well dozens anyway, small changes that I can see would improve the existing model, that I would like to run by you to be sure that we’re in agreement. Frankly, on a purely business level, the project would stand a much better chance of avoiding hitches if we met, informally, on a more regular basis. Just to chew over these sorts of details together.”
“OK, sounds like a …”
Just then he was interrupted by Sylvia, his secretary who came bursting into his office with a most alarmed look on her face.
“Melissa, look, I’ve got to go. Something urgent. I’ll call you later. Bye.”
“I’m so sorry to barge in like this, Nigel, but I think something awful has happened! I got a call half an hour ago from Mr Rathbone. He had just started to explain something he wanted me to do, I couldn’t hear well because he was driving and the connection wasn’t very good.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Then there was this awful screeching noise….then a loud bang, no, several loud bangs, crashing noises…and then the line went dead. I’ve tried ringing back but he’s not picking up!”
“That’s not all! I just switched on the radio I have in the office, for the traffic report and it seems there is a ‘major incident’ on the A1…near the M1 junction.”
“Do you know where Oliver was going this morning?”
“No, he never said anything before he left on Friday.”
“Have you checked with Peter?”
“He’s not in yet and I’ve tried his mobile but he’s not answering. Mrs Chancellor’s not in either.”
Nigel picked up his phone and dialled Marion’s number.
“Hello Marion, it’s Nigel. Sorry to bother you. Having trouble with phones here. Do you know if Peter had arranged to meet up with Oliver this morning?”
“Well, mmm, not sure. Hang on…Peter did say something about a visit with Oliver now I think about it. I had the radio on when he said something as he was leaving.”
“Thanks. Where are you Marion?”
“I’m at the Ripon branch. Why are you asking?”
“Just wanted to check on something but can’t get hold of either of them. Speak later. Thanks again, bye.”
He looked up but found Sylvia had left his office. A minute later she returned waving a diary.
“OK,” she said rather breathlessly,” This is Mr Rathbone’s desk diary. He’s got a line through today with just one word written in – it just says Saunders?”
“Try them each one more time. I know that Peter, at least, always keeps his phone on vibrate.” He looked at his watch, “Look, it’s just gone two o’clock. If you’re still getting no reply, I think you’d better start phoning the hospitals.”