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Authors: Jeffrey Archer

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Mightier Than the Sword (30 page)

BOOK: Mightier Than the Sword
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*   *   *

The three men who had been waiting for her all rose as Lady Virginia entered the room. At last the meeting could begin.

Desmond Mellor sat opposite her, wearing a brown-checked suit that would have been more in place at a greyhound track. On his left was Major Fisher, dressed in his obligatory dark blue pinstriped double-breasted suit, no longer off-the-peg; after all, he was now a Member of Parliament. Opposite him sat the man who was responsible for bringing the four of them together.

“I called this meeting at short notice,” said Adrian Sloane, “because something has arisen that could well disrupt our long-term plan.” None of them interrupted him. “Last Friday afternoon, just before Sebastian Clifton traveled to New York on the
Buckingham,
he purchased another twenty-five thousand of the bank’s shares, taking his overall position to just over five percent. As I warned you some time ago, anyone in possession of six percent of the company’s stock is automatically entitled to a place on the board, and if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be long before he discovered what we’ve been planning for the past six months.”

“How much time do you think we’ve got?” asked Lady Virginia.

“Could be a day, a month, a year, who knows?” said Sloane. “All we do know for certain is that only needs another one percent to claim a place on the board, so we should assume sooner rather than later.”

“How close are we to getting our hands on the old lady’s shares?” inquired the major. “That would solve all our problems.”

“I have an appointment to see her son Arnold next Tuesday,” said Des Mellor. “Officially to seek his advice on a legal matter, but I won’t tell him my real purpose until he’s signed a nondisclosure agreement.”

“Why aren’t you making him the offer?” Virginia asked, turning to Sloane. “After all, you’re the chairman of the bank.”

“He’d never agree to do business with me,” said Sloane, “not after I got Mrs. Hardcastle to waive her voting rights on the day of her husband’s funeral. But he hasn’t come across Desmond before.”

“And once he’s signed the nondisclosure agreement,” said Mellor, “I’ll make him an offer of three pounds nine shillings a share for his mother’s stock—that’s thirty percent above market value.”

“Surely he’ll be suspicious? After all, he knows you’re a director of the bank.”

“True,” said Sloane, “but as the sole trustee of his father’s estate, it’s his responsibility to get the best possible deal for his mother, and at the moment, she’s living off her dividend which I’ve kept to the minimum for the past two years.”

“After I’ve reminded him of that,” said Mellor, “I’ll deliver the coup de grâce, and tell him that the first thing I intend to do is remove Adrian as chairman of the bank.”

“That should clinch it,” said the major.

“But what’s to stop him getting in touch with Clifton and simply asking for a better price?”

“That’s the beauty of the nondisclosure agreement. He can’t discuss the offer with anyone other than his mother, unless he wants to be reported to the Bar Council. Not a risk a QC would take lightly.”

“And is our other buyer still in place?” asked the major.

“Mr. Bishara is not only in place,” said Sloane, “but he’s confirmed his offer of five pounds a share in writing, and deposited two million pounds with his solicitor to show he’s serious.”

“Why is he willing to pay so much over the odds?” asked Lady Virginia.

“Because the Bank of England has recently turned down his application for a license to trade as a banker in the City of London, and he’s so desperate to get his hands on an English bank with an impeccable reputation that he doesn’t seem to mind how much he pays for Farthings.”

“But won’t the Bank of England object to what is obviously a takeover?” asked Fisher.

“Not if he keeps the same board in place for a couple of years, and I stay on as chairman. Which is why it’s so important that Clifton doesn’t find out what we’re up to.”

“But what happens if Clifton gets his hands on six percent?”

“I’ll also offer him three pounds nine shillings a share,” said Sloane, “which I have a feeling he won’t be able to resist.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Mellor. “I’ve noticed a change of attitude recently. He seems to be working to a completely different agenda.”

“Then I’ll have to rewrite that agenda.”

*   *   *

“The book is where a book should be,” said Mrs. Babakov.

“In a bookshop?” Harry guessed.

Mrs. Babakov smiled. “But no ordinary bookshop.”

“If you want to keep that secret, I’ll understand, especially if its discovery is likely to bring even greater punishment on your husband.”

“What greater punishment could there be? His last words as he handed me the book were, ‘I’ve risked my life for this, and would happily sacrifice it to know it had been published so that the world, and more important the Russian people, can finally be told the truth.’ So I only have one purpose left in life, Mr. Clifton, and that is to see Anatoly’s book published, whatever the consequences. Otherwise every sacrifice he’s made will have been in vain.” She grasped his hand. “You’ll find it in an antiquarian bookshop that specializes in foreign translations on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Bolshaya Morskaya Street in Leningrad,” she said, continuing to grasp Harry’s hand like a lonely widow clinging to her only son. “It’s on the top shelf in the farthest corner, between
War and Peace
in Spanish, and
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
in French. But don’t look for
Uncle Joe,
because I hid it in the dust jacket of a Portuguese translation of
A Tale of Two Cities
. I don’t think too many Portuguese visit that shop.”

Harry smiled. “And if it’s still there, and I’m able to bring it back, are you happy for Mr. Guinzburg to publish it?”

“Anatoly would have been proud to be—” She stopped, smiled again and said, “Anatoly
will
be proud to be published by the same house as Harry Clifton.”

Harry took an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed it to her. She opened it slowly and extracted the check. Harry watched to see her reaction, but she simply put the check back in the envelope and returned it to him.

“But surely Anatoly would have wanted you to—”

“Yes, he would,” she said quietly. “But it’s not what I want. Can you imagine the pain he suffers every day? So until he is released, I do not care to live in any degree of comfort. You, of all people, must understand that.”

They sat silently together in the little room, holding hands. As the shadows crept in Harry realized there was no light. She was determined to share her husband’s prison. She displayed such dignity that it was Harry who felt embarrassed. Finally, Mrs. Babakov stood.

“I’ve kept you far too long, Mr. Clifton. I will understand if you decide not to return to Russia, as you have much to lose. And if you do not, I make only one request: please say nothing, until I have found someone who is willing to carry out the task.”

“Mrs. Babakov,” Harry said, “if the book is still there, I will find it. I will bring it back, and it will be published.”

She embraced him and said, “I will of course understand if you change your mind.”

Harry felt both sad and exhilarated as he walked back down the eight flights of stairs to the now-deserted sidewalk. He had to walk for several blocks before he was able to hail a cab, and he didn’t notice the man following him, dodging in and out of the shadows, and occasionally taking a surreptitious photograph.

“Damn,” muttered Harry as the train pulled out of Union Station and began its long journey back to New York. He had been so preoccupied with meeting Mrs. Babakov, he’d quite forgotten to visit the Carnegie. Jessica would chastise him. Wrong tense. Jessica would have chastised him.

 

LADY VIRGINIA FENWICK

1970

 

28

“I
WOULD LIKE TO
open this meeting,” said Adrian Sloane, “by offering my heartiest congratulations to Major Fisher on being elected as a Member of Parliament.”

“Hear, hear,” said Desmond Mellor, patting the new MP on the back.

“Thank you,” said Fisher. “May I say that I consider it an added bonus that it was Giles Barrington I defeated.”

“And if I have my way,” said Sloane, “he won’t be the only Barrington who’s about to suffer a loss. But first, I’m going to ask Desmond to tell us how his meeting with Arnold Hardcastle went.”

“Not well, to begin with, because he clearly wasn’t interested in selling his mother’s shares, even at the inflated price of three pounds nine shillings. But when I told him that my first action as the majority shareholder would be to sack Adrian and remove him from the board, his whole attitude changed.”

“He took the bait?” said Fisher.

“Of course he did,” said Sloane. “He hates me as much as you hate Emma Clifton and Giles Barrington, perhaps even more.”

“That’s not possible,” said Lady Virginia.

“But the clincher,” said Mellor, “was when I told him who I intended to appoint as chairman of Farthings in Adrian’s place.” Mellor couldn’t resist pausing for as long as he felt he could get away with, before saying, “Ross Buchanan.”

“But one phone call to Buchanan, and he’ll know…”

“You’ve forgotten, major, that Hardcastle signed a confidentiality agreement, so he won’t be phoning anyone. And I’d love to see his face when he discovers that we’re changing the name of the bank from Farthings to Sloane’s.”

“Can he still change his mind if someone makes him a better offer for the shares?” asked Lady Virginia.

“It’s too late,” said Mellor. “He’s already signed the share transfer certificates, so as long as I pay up within twenty-one days, the stock is mine.”

“And you’ll only be out of pocket for a short time,” said Sloane, “before Hakim Bishara buys the shares, giving you a handsome profit.”

“But if Bishara doesn’t pay up, we’ll all be left in the lurch,” Virginia reminded them.

“He’s been on the phone twice a day wanting updates on everything that’s going on. He even postponed a visit to Beirut for a meeting with the Lebanese president. In fact, I’m thinking of upping the price from five pounds to six, but not until the last moment.”

“Isn’t that a bit of a risk?” asked Fisher.

“Believe me, he’s so desperate to get his hands on Farthings, he’ll agree to almost anything. Let’s move on to the second part of our plan, which involves you, Lady Virginia, and the timing of your trial, which is crucial.”

“Emma Clifton will be served with pleadings next week, and my lawyers have told me they anticipate the trial will begin some time in November.”

“That couldn’t be better,” said Mellor, checking his diary, “because the next Barrington’s board meeting is in three weeks’ time, and I’ll insist that Mrs. Clifton stands down as chairman, for the good of the company, at least until the trial is over.”

“And there are no prizes for guessing who will take her place during that time,” said Sloane.

“Once I’m in the chair,” said Mellor, “I will consider it nothing less than my fiduciary duty to let the shareholders know what really happened on the first night of the
Buckingham
’s maiden voyage.”

“But that’s always been shrouded in mystery,” said Fisher, looking a little uneasy.

“Not for much longer it won’t be. When I first joined the board of Barrington’s, Jim Knowles hinted that all had not gone well on that voyage, but however much I pressed him he wouldn’t elaborate. Of course, I checked the minutes of the board meeting that was held on the ship later that morning, but all I could find was an apology from the captain for an explosion that took place in the early hours, which he blamed on the Home Fleet, who he claimed were carrying out night exercises in the North Atlantic. One look at the Admiralty records and you’ll quickly discover that the Home Fleet was anchored off Gibraltar at the time.”

“So what really happened?” asked Fisher. “Because I tried to get the truth out of Knowles myself, and even after a few drams he remained tight-lipped.”

“The only thing I could find out,” said Mellor, “was that he and the other board members had signed a confidentiality agreement. I thought I’d come to a dead end until last month’s board meeting when Mrs. Clifton made a rash decision without realizing its potential consequences.”

No one asked the obvious question.

“The
Buckingham
’s captain had reported to the board that during its latest voyage the third officer, a Mr. Jessel, was found drunk while serving on the bridge, and had been confined to his quarters for the rest of the crossing. Admiral Summers demanded that Jessel be sacked immediately without severance pay or a reference. I supported him because, like all the other board members, he’d forgotten that Jessel was the junior flag officer of the watch on the first night of the maiden voyage, and must have witnessed everything that took place.”

Fisher dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief.

“It wasn’t difficult,” continued Mellor, “to track down Jessel, who is not only out of work, but admitted to being three months behind with his rent. I took him off to the local pub, and it didn’t take long to discover that he was still angry and bitter about his dismissal. He went on to claim that he knew things that would bring the company down. A few rums later and he began to elaborate on what those things were, assuming that I’d been sent to make sure he kept his mouth shut, which only made him open it even more. He told me that he saw Harry Clifton and Giles Barrington carrying a large vase of flowers up from one of the first-class cabins to the upper deck. They managed to throw it overboard just moments before it exploded. The following morning three Irishmen were arrested and the captain apologized to the passengers, giving them the Home Fleet story, whereas in truth they were only seconds away from a major disaster that could have killed heaven knows how many people and, quite literally, sunk the company without trace.”

“But why didn’t the IRA publicize what really happened?” demanded Fisher nervously.

BOOK: Mightier Than the Sword
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