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Authors: Jeffrey Archer

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Sagas

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BOOK: Mightier Than the Sword
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“Perhaps you have a one-product problem?” Emma suggested.

“I’ve thought about diversifying, but—”

“Can we possibly talk about something other than fish paste,” said Priscilla. “After all, we are meant to be on holiday.”

“Of course,” said Harry. “How is Clive?” he asked, regretting his words immediately.

“He’s just fine, thank you,” said Bob, jumping in quickly. “And you must both be so proud of Sebastian being invited to join the board.”

Emma smiled.

“Well, that’s hardly a surprise,” said Priscilla. “Let’s face it, if your mother is the chairman of the company, and your family owns a majority of the stock, frankly you could appoint a cocker spaniel to the board and the rest of the directors would wag their tails.”

Harry thought Emma was about to explode, but luckily her mouth was full, so a long silence followed.

“Is that rare?” Priscilla demanded as a steak was placed in front of her.

The waiter checked her order. “No, madam, it’s medium.”

“I ordered rare. I couldn’t have made it clearer. Take it away and try again.”

The waiter deftly removed the plate without comment, as Priscilla turned to Harry. “Can you make a living as a writer?”

“It’s tough,” admitted Harry, “not least because there are so many excellent authors out there. However—”

“Still, you married a rich woman, so it really doesn’t matter all that much, does it?”

This silenced Harry, but not Emma. “Well, at last we’ve discovered something we have in common, Priscilla.”

“I agree,” said Priscilla, not missing a beat, “but then I’m old-fashioned, and was brought up to believe it’s the natural order of things for a man to take care of a woman. It somehow doesn’t seem right the other way around.” She took a sip of wine, and Emma was about to respond when she added with a warm smile, “I think you’ll find the wine is corked.”

“I thought it was excellent,” said Bob.

“Dear Robert still doesn’t know the difference between a claret and a burgundy. Whenever we throw a dinner party, it’s always left to me to select the wine. Waiter!” she said, turning to the sommelier. “We’ll need another bottle of the Merlot.”

“Yes of course, madam.”

“I don’t suppose you get to the north of England much,” said Bob.

“Not that often,” said Emma. “But a branch of my family hails from the Highlands.”

“Mine too,” said Priscilla. “I was born a Campbell.”

“I think you’ll find that’s the Lowlands,” said Emma, as Harry kicked her under the table.

“I’m sure you’re right, as always,” said Priscilla. “So I know you won’t mind me asking you a personal question.” Bob put down his knife and fork and looked anxiously across at his wife. “What really happened on the first night of the voyage? Because I know the Home Fleet was nowhere to be seen.”

“How can you possibly know that, when you were fast asleep at the time?” said Bob.

“So what do you think happened, Priscilla?” asked Emma, reverting to a tactic her brother often used when he didn’t want to answer a question.

“Some passengers are saying that one of the turbines exploded.”

“The engine room is open for inspection by the passengers at any time,” said Emma. “In fact, I believe there was a well-attended guided tour this morning.”

“I also heard that a bomb exploded in your cabin,” said Priscilla, undaunted.

“You are most welcome to visit our cabin at any time so you can correct the ill-informed rumormonger who suggested that.”

“And someone else told me,” said Priscilla, plowing on, “that a group of Irish terrorists boarded the ship at around midnight—”

“Only to find we were fully booked, and as there wasn’t a cabin available, they were made to walk the plank and swim all the way back to Belfast?”

“And did you hear the one about some Martians flying in from outer space and landing inside one of the funnels?” said Harry, as the waiter reappeared with a rare steak.

Priscilla gave it no more than a glance, before she rose from her place. “You’re all hiding something,” she said, dropping her napkin on the table, “and I intend to find out what it is before we reach Avonmouth.”

The three of them watched as she glided serenely across the floor and out of the dining room.

“I apologize,” said Bob. “That turned out even worse than I feared.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Harry. “My wife snores.”

“I do not,” said Emma, as the two men burst out laughing.

“I’d give half my fortune to have the relationship you two enjoy.”

“I’ll take it,” said Harry. This time it was Emma’s turn to kick her husband under the table.

“Well, I’m grateful for one thing, Bob,” said Emma, reverting to her chairman’s voice. “Your wife clearly has no idea what really happened on our first night at sea. But if she ever found out…”

*   *   *

“I’d like to open this meeting by welcoming my son Sebastian Clifton onto the board.”

Hear, hears echoed around the ballroom.

“While being inordinately proud of his achievement at such a young age, I feel I should warn Mr. Clifton that the rest of the board will be observing his contributions with considerable interest.”

“Thank you, chairman,” said Sebastian, “for both your warm welcome and your helpful advice.” Seb’s words caused several members of the board to smile. His mother’s confidence, with his father’s charm.

“Moving on,” said the chairman, “allow me to bring you up to date on what has become known as the Home Fleet incident. Although we cannot yet afford to relax, it would appear that our worst fears have not been realized. Nothing of any real significance found its way into the press on either side of the Atlantic, not least, I’m told, because of a little assistance from Number Ten. The three Irishmen who were arrested in the early hours of our first night at sea are no longer on board. Once we’d docked and all the passengers had disembarked, they were discreetly transferred to a Royal Navy frigate, which is now on its way to Belfast.

“The damaged propeller, although not back to its full capacity, still has a rev count of around sixty percent, and will be replaced once we arrive back in Avonmouth. Our maintenance team worked day and night on the damaged hull while we were docked in New York and have done a first-class job. Only a seasoned mariner would be able to spot any sign of repair. Further work on the hull will also be carried out while we’re in Avonmouth. I anticipate that by the time the
Buckingham
sets out on its second voyage to New York in eight days’ time, no one would know we ever had a problem. However, I think it would be unwise for any of us to discuss the incident outside the boardroom, and should you be questioned on the subject, just stick to the official Home Fleet line.”

“Will we be making a claim on our insurance policy?” asked Knowles.

“No,” said Emma firmly, “because if we did, it would undoubtedly throw up a lot of questions I don’t want to answer.”

“Understood, chairman,” said Dobbs. “But how much has the Home Fleet incident cost us?”

“I don’t yet have an accurate figure to present to the board, but I’m told it could be as much as seven thousand pounds.”

“That would be a small price to pay, given the circumstances,” chipped in Bingham.

“I agree. However, no reference to the Home Fleet incident need be recorded in the minutes of this board or disclosed to our shareholders.”

“Chairman,” said the company secretary, “I’ll have to make some reference to what happened.”

“Then stick to the Home Fleet explanation, Mr. Webster, and don’t circulate anything without my approval.”

“If you say so, chairman.”

“Let’s move on to some more positive news.” Emma turned a page of her file. “The
Buckingham
has a one hundred percent occupancy for the journey back to Avonmouth, and we already have a seventy-two percent take-up for the second voyage to New York.”

“That is good news,” said Bingham. “However, we mustn’t forget the 184 free cabin spaces we have offered as compensation that are sure to be taken up at some time in the future.”

“At some time in the future is what matters, Mr. Bingham. If they are evenly distributed over the next couple of years, they’ll have little effect on our cash flow.”

“But I’m afraid there’s something else that might well affect our cash flow. And what makes it worse, the problem is not of our making.”

“What are you referring to, Mr. Anscott?” asked Emma.

“I had a very interesting chat with your brother on the way out, and found him fairly sanguine about the consequences of the country having to borrow one and a half billion pounds from the IMF in order to stop a run on the pound. He also mentioned the possibility of the government imposing a seventy percent corporation tax on all companies, as well as ninety percent income tax on anyone earning over thirty thousand a year.”

“Good God,” said the admiral. “Will I be able to afford my own funeral?”

“And the chancellor’s latest idea,” continued Anscott, “which I find almost inconceivable, is that no businessman or holidaymaker will be allowed to leave the country with more than fifty pounds cash in their possession.”

“That won’t exactly tempt people to travel abroad,” said Dobbs with some feeling.

“I think I may have found a way around that,” said Sebastian.

The rest of the board turned toward the newest recruit.

“I’ve been carrying out a little research into what our rivals are up to, and it seems that the owners of the SS
New York
and the SS
France
have come up with a solution to their tax problems.” Seb had caught the attention of the board. “The SS
New York
is no longer registered as being owned by an American company, despite the fact that its headquarters are still in Manhattan, along with the vast majority of its employees. For tax purposes, the company is registered in Panama. In fact, if you look carefully at this picture,” Seb placed a large photograph of the SS
New York
in the center of the table, “you will see a small Panamanian flag flying from the stern, despite the fact that the Stars and Stripes remain emblazoned on everything on board, from the plates in the dining rooms to the carpets in the staterooms.”

“And are the French doing the same thing?” asked Knowles.

“They most certainly are, but with a subtle Gallic difference. They’re flying an Algerian flag from the stern of the SS
France,
which I suspect is no more than a political sop.” Another photo, this time of the great French liner, was passed around Seb’s colleagues.

“Is this legal?” asked Dobbs.

“There’s not a damn thing either government can do about it,” said Seb. “Both ships are at sea for more than three hundred days a year, and as far as the passengers can tell, everything is exactly the same as it’s always been.”

“I don’t like the sound of it,” said the admiral. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”

“Our first duty must be to the shareholders,” Bob reminded his colleagues, “so can I suggest that Clifton presents a paper on the subject, so we can discuss it in greater detail at the next board meeting?”

“Good idea,” said Dobbs.

“I’m not against the idea,” said Emma, “but our finance director has come up with an alternative solution that some of you might find more attractive.” Emma nodded in the direction of Michael Carrick.

“Thank you, chairman. It’s quite simple really. If we were to go ahead with building a second ship, and take advantage of our repeat order option with Harland and Wolff within the specified contract period, we would avoid paying any corporation tax for the next four years.”

“There must be a catch,” said Knowles.

“Apparently not,” said Emma. “Any company can claim tax relief on a capital project, as long as it keeps to the price agreed in the original contract.”

“Why would the government agree to that, when their other proposed measures are so draconian?” asked Maynard.

“Because it helps to keep the unemployment figures down,” said Seb. “Which the Labour Party promised to do in their last manifesto.”

“Then I favor that solution,” said Dobbs. “But how much time is there before we have to decide whether or not to take up Harland and Wolff’s offer?”

“Just over five months,” said Carrick.

“More than enough time to come to a decision,” said Maynard.

“But that doesn’t solve the fifty-pounds restriction on our passengers,” said Anscott.

Seb couldn’t resist a smile. “Uncle Giles pointed out to me that there’s nothing to stop a passenger cashing a check while on board.”

“But we don’t have any banking facilities on the
Buckingham,”
Dobbs reminded him.

“Farthings would be only too happy to open an onboard branch,” said Seb.

“Then I suggest,” said Anscott, “that such a proposal also be included in Mr. Clifton’s report, and any recommendations should be circulated to all board members before the next meeting.”

“Agreed,” said Emma. “So all we have to decide now is when that meeting will be.”

As usual, some considerable time was spent selecting a date that was convenient for all the board members.

“And let us hope,” said Emma, “that by the time we next meet, the Home Fleet incident will be nothing more than folklore. Any other business?” she asked, looking around the table.

“Yes, chairman,” said Knowles. “You asked us to suggest possible candidates for the other vacant position on the board.”

“Who do you have in mind?”

“Desmond Mellor.”

“The man who founded the Bristol Bus company?”

“The same, but he sold out to National Buses last year. Made a handsome profit, and now finds himself with time on his hands.”

“And considerable knowledge of the transport business,” chipped in Anscott, revealing that he and Knowles were working in tandem.

“Then why don’t I invite Mr. Mellor to come in and see me some time next week,” said Emma, before either man could put it to a vote.

Knowles reluctantly agreed.

When the meeting broke up, Emma was delighted to see how many directors went over to Sebastian and welcomed him to the board. So much so, that it was some time before she was able to have a private word with her son.

BOOK: Mightier Than the Sword
12.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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