Mary turned and looked up the steps at Mrs M.
"Gelda Guttenstein!" she exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"I run the place. Came as house manager a couple of years after you left and… Sorry, Mr. Michael, Mrs. James. It's been twenty-odd years since I saw Mary. We'll catch up later, Mary. I'd better get you all sorted out first."
I looked up and saw Gerald hovering at the top of the steps. "I know," I said. "Why don't we leave Gerald to sort everything out while we go into the Conservatory? Anne, no doubt, is dying for a coffee, and I would not mind a tea myself. We are both anxious to hear how you two know each other."
Some ten minutes later, Anne, I, Mary and Mrs M were seated around a table in the Conservatory. "So," I asked, "how do you two know each other?"
"Mary worked with me," Mrs M replied. "That was twenty-plus years ago. I was general manager for an events company; Mary was our leading event organiser. She was so good that one of our competitors persuaded her to go freelance.
"Saw her around for a bit. We used her a couple of times on projects. Then she dropped off the events scene, and I heard she had got married. Shortly after that, I was offered the house-manager job here. It suited me because my sister lived nearby and I looked to make a killing on my place in London; so, I took the job."
"You said your sister lived nearby," I said. "Does she still?"
"No, she died a few years ago, not long after Mr. Phil and Mr. Ben bought the place. I was about to leave, but the then housekeeper decided to leave, and they offered me the job."
"I have never really understood the difference between housekeeper and house manager," Anne commented.
"It depends a bit how the jobs are specified," Mrs M replied. "Basically, the house manager is responsible for all the administration of the house — everything from booking rooms to placing orders for maintenance work to be done. Most importantly, the house manager runs the 'front of house'. The housekeeper is responsible for everything inside the house: staff, bookings, cleaning, meals — you name it. The housekeeper is responsible for it so long as it is inside the house. The house manager is really the housekeeper's assistant. The most important thing is the housekeeper has overall charge of the budget and has to make sure that all expenditure is within the agreed limits."
"But what happened to you, Mary?" she asked. "Where did you drop out to?"
Mary laughed. "I was organising an agricultural event in the East Midlands and met this farmer."
For the next half hour, they talked about events. Shortly after half-seven, Ben walked in with Johnny, who was carrying a pile of pizza boxes. Mrs M looked at him.
"I said I would sort dinner. You'd better round everyone up," he stated.
"Since when has pizza been dinner here?" Mrs M asked.
"That's precisely why I got it," Ben said. "Now be a good oberführer and round everyone up. Johnny, put the pizzas on the table. We'll sort things out in a moment." With that, he turned and hugged me, then kissed Anne. I introduced him to Mary, who looked a bit awestruck.
"Phil has taken your boys off fishing; they should be back soon," Ben stated.
"They're here already?" she asked.
"Yes, they came up yesterday afternoon. Bernard avoids driving on Shabbat. One of the few rules he usually does follow, or, at least, Debora makes sure he complies with it when she can.
"Anne, we've put you and Mike in the Dowager House for tonight with Bernard and Debora. Mike can move into the Lilac Room tomorrow." I gave Ben a look, then remembered I was not supposed to see the bride the night before the wedding. "Ms. Simpson, your boys stayed at the Dowager House last night, but we moved them to the Lodge Cottage this morning; that is where you will be staying. Gerald will run you out there when you are ready."
Just then, Phil walked in accompanied by Ian and his brother. The two boys ran over to their mother. She looked quite surprised by Phil. I realised I had not warned her who my brother and his partner were.
The smaller of the two boys who had entered with Phil, who I took to be Robert, ran over to Mary and put his arms around her. "Mam, you should see what we've caught." Mrs M looked over at Phil.
"I've given them to Cook," he stated.
I pulled Johnny to one side and asked him how the exams were going. He informed me they had gone OK so far. I also found out he had been at the house since Thursday. "It was our only exam this week, so Uncle Ben came up and brought us back. Bains is taking us back on Tuesday, and he will be dropping Granddad and Grandma off on the way."
"Us?" I asked.
"Me and Colin. We are staying in the Coach House."
Just then Bernard and Debora entered accompanied by an elderly lady. Bernard guided the lady towards me while Debora went to greet Anne.
"Mike," he stated, "may I introduce an old acquaintance, Miss Edith Jenkins. I've only found out today that she was living close by, so I invited her over so we could chat about old times." There was something in the way he said that which hinted that it might not be a good idea to ask precisely what old times he was talking about. There was also something slightly familiar about Edith Jenkins which I could not put my finger on. I was sure that I had come across her sometime before. But where? That was the question.
I took Miss Jenkins' proffered hand and shook it. She had a surprisingly firm grip for a slim elderly lady. Just then, Ben, who had been chatting with Anne, turned and saw Miss Jenkins."
"Edith!" he exclaimed. "God, haven't seen you in ages." Things fell into place. I remembered where I had seen Edith Jenkins before. She used to train at the martial-arts centre where Ben had taught. I had been there a couple of times when he needed transport. I also remembered him telling me that the 'little old lady' was one of the most dangerous people around. Not only was she a high-ranking martial artist in her own right, but she was married into one of the London East End crime families. I decided I'd better warn Bernard what I knew about her.
As soon as the pizzas had been consumed and things quietened down a bit, I pulled Bernard off to one side and told him what I knew about Miss Jenkins. He laughed. "You couldn't be more wrong, Mike. Miss Jenkins is not associated with an East London crime family; she heads it."
I looked at him in surprise. Bernard continued: "Her partner, Albert — they weren't actually married — used to lead it. When he got sent down for sixteen, Edith took over. Over the last ten years, she has made an excellent job of doing so, effectively moving it into legitimate, though maybe questionable, business activities. I somehow think she will continue to lead it when Albert gets out next year unless she decides to retire."
"So, what is she doing here?"
"Getting background information," Bernard informed me. "I need a good investigator to find out what is going on in Dunford with the Brethren. When it comes to getting information, Edith and her people are amongst the best. She's going down to Dunford next week, and I do not doubt that I will soon have the information I need. Her family are experts at obtaining information. First, however, she needs to know what she is getting into. So, I brought her here to meet Mary and Arthur. They can tell her a lot about the local scene."
It was sometime later when I was standing on the terrace thinking about things that I became aware of Edith Jenkins' presence next to me.
"I gather you know something of my background," she stated.
"A bit," I responded.
"And you don't approve." It was a statement, not a question.
"I'm worried. Bernard is my best friend, and I don't want him caught up in something that might damage his reputation."
"Don't worry, Mr. Carlton," she replied. "I owe Bernard LeBrun a lot." I looked at her.
"Don't be surprised, Mr. Carlton. My family has a lot of legitimate business activities and a lot of investments. I believe we have both made a considerable killing in the last couple of weeks from our investments in a particular tailor's shop."
"How did you—"
"Oh, we acquired shares at the initial placement just like yourself. I think Albert and myself, along with his brothers, each took about the same level of holding as you did. We needed to know who else had holdings and what their interest was, so we found the information.
"You see, Mr. Carlton, information is probably the most valuable thing around these days. It pays to have access to the right information. I make sure my family does. Forty years ago, my Albert and his brothers held up security vans and stole the payrolls they carried. However, the vans got more secure, and it took more effort to acquire the payrolls, which, anyway, were getting smaller with more people using bank accounts.
"My Albert always said one should avoid violence, so when violence started to become inevitable, he and his brothers moved to other targets: fine art and jewellery. However, to acquire such items, you need information, a lot of information, and we became experts at getting it.
"Some time ago, I realised that the information was often more valuable than what we were acquiring, so I moved us to a new marketplace: obtaining and selling information. It's become quite a lucrative business and is now our main line of activity, though I still like to keep my hand in with the odd heist every now and again. You never know when the old skills might be needed." She smiled. I got the feeling she was telling me a lot more than she was actually saying.
"Over the years," she continued, "I have tried to ensure that the family has quite a firm foundation in legitimate business. On occasions, there have been problems with acquiring or maintaining control of such investments. The Proceeds of Crime Act can be very inconvenient. Fortunately, Bernard has been most helpful in ensuring that we do not fall afoul of such legislation.
"All my nieces and nephews have nice little businesses to keep them employed. That is very much thanks to Bernard. So, when Bernard asked for some assistance in an area where I have some expertise, I could not turn him down. Anyway, he offered me a very nice fee, and it helps to break the monotony that can grow on you when living in a little village."
Somehow, I got the feeling that Edith Jenkins was not a lady who would allow much tedium to build up in her life. I mentioned this fact to her. She smiled and acknowledged that she tried to avoid it whenever possible.
"Then again," she continued, "this is a family matter."
"A family matter?"
"Yes. You see, John Jenkins was my great-nephew." With that, she turned and walked back to the Conservatory. Leaving me wondering just what Bernard was up to.
"So, Edith spoke to you?" I turned to find Ben behind me.
"I realised you had recognised her and told her I had told you about her."
"I'm surprised that Bernard knows somebody like Edith," I observed.
"Don't be, I introduced them," Ben replied.
"Mike, I introduced Edith to Bernard fifteen/sixteen years ago. She asked me if I knew a respectable lawyer who could be trusted. So, I gave her Bernard's name. She wanted to set up some sort of trust for her nieces and nephews. Since then, I gather she had done quite a bit of business with Bernard."
"But she's a crook," I pointed out.
"And, by all accounts, a bloody good one," Ben stated. "She is also a very effective businesswoman. Bernard once let it slip that if anyone worked out precisely what she did own, she would probably be one of the richest women in the country.
"Look, Bernard needs information. Not just for Ian's case but for his brother's as well." I looked at Ben questioningly. "It seems that things were not quite as clear cut in that conviction as they first appeared to be. Bernard thinks the boy was set up, just like Ian. He wants to get to the bottom of it."
"I'm surprised Bernard has been talking about it to you."
"He hasn't, Mike. Ian spent the day fishing with Phil and told him all about the case. He is Bernard's client, after all. Phil just told me."
"Johnny told me that Colin is here, but where is he? I haven't seen him around."
"We ran him over to his grandparents. They'll drop him back in the morning."
We chatted a bit more about arrangements. It seemed that Stan and Flo would be arriving later; Bains had gone to collect them. Most of my family would be coming the next day. I asked him about plans for the evening and was informed that nothing had been planned, though he and Phil needed to talk with Bernard about some legal issues they hoped to get out of the way before everybody got into wedding mode.
That being the case, I suggested to Anne that we should make it an early night. After all, it was going to be our last chance at living in sin.
I woke early on Sunday morning and decided to go for a walk before going up to the main house for breakfast. When I went down to the lounge, I found one of the staff laying out a selection of pastries and meats.
"Good morning, sir," he said as I entered the room. "Mr. Phil asked me to let you know there would be a brunch served this morning at twelve. In the meantime, he ordered that a light-breakfast selection be made available here."
The pastries looked tempting, so I decided to postpone my walk. I was on my second Danish when Anne came in.
"I hope you will still get into your morning suit," she commented, looking at me eating the pastry.
"Should be able to. Will have a walk around the lake to burn it off."
"By the look of the crumbs on that plate, you probably need to run around the lake."
"This is only my second," I protested.
"That's my point exactly," she replied. "We might be better going and sitting on the terrace, getting away from temptation."
"OK," I agreed, as I poured myself another tea and grabbed another couple of Danish and followed her out to the terrace. She gave my full plate a look.
We had just sat down when Bernard and Debora came out to join us. Bernard looked slightly worse for wear. I asked where Joseph was.
"Phil's put the boys in the Coach House again. Just hope they can keep out of trouble," Bernard commented.
"I am sure they can," Debora said. "Which is more than I can say for their fathers." She gave Bernard a dark look.
"It wasn't my fault," he stated.
"What wasn't?" Anne asked.
"He came back at one this morning, singing 'I've got a little list'," Debora answered.
"I gather Phil and Ben had their chat with you," I commented.
"Yes, and I need to talk to you about it," Bernard said.
"Now?" I asked.
"Well, it is as good a time as any. Let's go for a walk around the lake."
We agreed to meet Debora and Anne up at the main house for brunch and set off along the path.
"So, Bernard, what's up?"
"Your brother and his partner," Bernard replied.
"What have they done now?"
"For a start, they kept me up till gone midnight, drinking a bottle of Bushmills."
"I'm not sure what you are complaining about."
"I'm not complaining. I do, though, have to tell you what is going on."
"So, what is going on?" I asked.
"Right. For a start, Ben and Phil are changing their wills. Johnny was always going to get something, but now he is going to get most of it. Actually, aside from a couple of million in bequests to staff and friends, Johnny gets everything."
"I think you heard me," Bernard stated. "Johnny will get everything."
"Just how much is everything?" I asked, looking around the estate.
"To be honest, Mike, I don't know, but it is a damned sight more than either of us is likely to leave our children. Both of them over the years, with the possible exception of this place, have made some excellent investments, especially in start-ups.
"The thing is, they want to move the property assets into a trust so that when the inevitable happens, the estate won't be hit with massive taxes."
"What will they live on?" I asked.
"Don't worry about that. They have the trading business and the properties separated. Take this place: the actual property is owned by Manston Estates, a private limited company. The trading activities, like the wedding business, is run by Manston House Events, another private limited company. Manston House Events leases the house and the estate from Manston Estates. It is set up that way so that if the trading activities get into difficulties, the property is safe. They've done the same with the commercial developments they run and the graphic-effects company."
"I did not know they had a graphics-effects company."
"Yes, they set it up about four years ago when Phil directed that SciFi movie. There was a lot of CGI in it. There was some problem with the people in the States who were supposed to be doing the CGI, so Phil found some people over here to do it. They set up their own CGI team and then turned it into a company to provide services to other production units. They bought an old warehouse down in Chiswick and converted it into a CGI studio. I believe it is one of the best facilities in the country.
"Used the same set up there. The building is owned by a property company, which also owns some of their other commercial-property investments—"
"Other property investments! What other property investments?" I asked.
"They have some quite substantial interests in property both here and in mainland Europe, mostly the Netherlands and Denmark, but they have stuff in France, Spain and Italy."
"I did not realise; I knew they were well off—"
"Mike, your brother and his partner have been grossing more than thirty million a year for at least the last twelve years. Most of it, by the way, tax-free. That's one advantage of a job that takes you jaunting around the world. You can get permanent traveller status."
"Never mind, I'll explain it some other time. Just let's say they have had some excellent tax advice and managed to avoid paying it on most of their income. They had to invest their money somewhere; so they have — in several businesses and a range of properties.
"It is those properties or, to be more exact, the companies that own those properties that they want to put into the trust. Believe me; it won't make that much a dent on their income." Bernard then paused and thought about something. "In fact, given the way their income has increased over the last few years from the businesses, they probably won't even notice the loss of the property income.
"So, are you prepared to be one of the trustees?" Bernard asked.
"But what if they adopt a kid or use a surrogate?" I enquired.
"Believe me, Mike, that is not going to happen," Bernard assured me.
"That I can't say; it comes under client confidentiality, but I can assure you there is no way Ben and Phil will ever adopt a child."
By the time we got back to the Dowager House, Bernard had convinced me that Ben and Phil knew what they were doing and got me to agree to being one of the trustees. He had also explained to me that the trust was to be an open-ended trust, so it would be set up in Switzerland. I had to ask why.
"Mike, you can't set up an open-ended trust under English Trust Law. There has to be a terminating event. The Swiss allow them, though. That is why so many family trusts are based in Switzerland."
I probably learnt more about Trust Law than I wanted to, walking around that lake.
When we got back to the Dowager House, there was a note from Anne and Debora that they had gone up to the main house, with a postscript that they had taken the golf cart so we would have to walk.
As we were walking up to the house, we saw Bob's Aston Martin make its way up the drive. I turned to Bernard. "Ben and Phil have probably organised something for a stag do tonight. Make sure I don't get drunk."
"Why?" Bernard asked.
"Because if I do, that agent of mine will probably get me to commit to writing something I would prefer not to write."
O o O o O
Brunch was served in the Conservatory, buffet style. Debora, Bernard, Anne and I took up one of the small tables at the end of the Conservatory and started to help ourselves to brunch. Not long after we were seated, the boys arrived, piled up their plates with food and then took the table next to us.
"Dad," Johnny called across.
"Is it OK if we went into Rugby this afternoon. Phil says we can use one of the estate cars, and Arthur can drive us."
"And exactly who is us?" I asked.
"Joseph, Trevor and me, plus Arthur."
I looked across at Trevor. "You've got a hoodie and glasses, I presume?"
"Never go without them."
"OK, Joseph, you need to ask your parents. I can't give permission." Joseph nodded, then stood and walked over to our table and had a whispered conversation with his parents. Bernard pulled out his wallet and handed Joseph an assortment of notes.
The boys left after brunch. As they did, Anne asked me what I thought they were up to?
"Why should they be up to anything?"
"They're boys; boys are always up to something," she replied. I just nodded.
"Mike," Ben called from the far side of the Conservatory. "We'd better go and get your things from the Dowager House." I looked at him bemused. "You are not allowed to see the bride before the wedding, so you are staying in the Lilac Room, remember. Thought we would get you moved while the girls are enjoying the spa."
I remembered. I also remembered that Debora and Anne were going to have some sort of spa treatment this afternoon.
"OK, we'd better get that done," I responded. "Once that is done, I need to talk with you and Phil."
"About the trust?" Ben asked.
"OK. Phil's gone over to Home Farm, but he should be back in about an hour. We need to talk to you about something else, anyway."
Ben ran me down to the Dowager House and back in one of the golf carts. It did not take long for me to grab my stuff, load it onto the back of the golf cart and return to Manston Hall. Once I had put my things in the Lilac Room, I joined Ben on the terrace overlooking the lily pond.
It was warm; sunlight reflected from the surface of the pond, which was only disturbed now and then when one of the Koi carp rose to the surface to gulp something.
"Well, you've certainly got goldfish now," I said to Ben, remembering all the times he had nagged me to win him a goldfish when we went to the fair.
"Just as well. If I had waited for you to win one, I'd still be waiting. I called Phil. He was just about to leave Home Farm, so should not be long."
We talked for a few minutes about the events of the next day and my plans for the Priory. Phil joined us carrying a tray of tea.
"Thought you could probably do with some refreshment; I certainly need some," he commented, placing the tray on the table.
"That bad?" Ben asked.
"No, worse. Jack Edwards can talk the hind legs off a donkey and still give you no useful information," Phil said. "I did, though, manage to speak to Peter, which was useful."
I must have looked a bit puzzled because Phil continued, "Sorry, Mike. Jack is our farm manager, though he is due to retire end of this year. Peter is his replacement."
"So, what did Peter say?" Ben enquired.
"He agrees with the consultants. Close the Home Farm complex and move everything to New Farm. The cost of upgrading the buildings at Home Farm for the new equipment will be about the same as the cost of building new barns at New Farm, which will be a damned sight better than anything we could have at Home Farm."
"So, it is settled. We close down all farming operations out of the Home Farm buildings and move them to the New Farm complex," Ben stated.
"I think that sums it up," Phil agreed. "Which brings us round to Mary Simpson, Mike. What can you tell us about her?"
"Not much," I replied. "Why?"
"Mrs M told us we should hire her as the events manager. At the moment, we don't have one. Mrs M does it all. The problem is she is due to retire soon, and we have no one lined up to replace her."
"I thought from what Mrs M said at Easter that Mrs Perkins was due to take over," I commented.
"Unfortunately, Mrs Perkins handed in her notice last week. Her daughter has opened up a hotel in New Zealand, and Mrs Perkins and her husband are off to help her," Ben informed me.
"So, you are looking for Mary to take over from Mrs M," I stated.
"No, doubt if anyone could do that. We are planning on having a general manager to oversee everything, which Mrs M does anyway. Then split the events management and housekeeping into two different jobs," Phil said. "In fact, we should have done that ages ago, but Mrs M is so efficient we never got around to it. That's why we are interested in Mary Simpson. Mrs M says she's good, but we don't know what her situation is. Would she consider moving from Dunford?"
My own opinion was that she would probably jump at the chance. So, I told my brother and his partner what I knew about Mary's situation. Also, advised them to speak with Bernard about it, as I sensed he knew more than he had told me.
Once we had finished talking about Mary Simpson, I told them I needed to speak with them about the trust.
"Look, Mike," Phil stated. "Setting up the trust makes sense. We both turn forty next year. We need to start to plan for when something happens to us."
"You're not expecting anything to happen?" The thought of AIDS jumping into my mind.
"No, we don't," Ben informed me. "We both had full medicals last month — the insurance requires it — and passed with flying colours. However, we do work in an occupation which carries some risks, and we both have high-risk pastimes."
That was true. Both Phil and Ben enjoyed rock climbing and sky diving. They were also into freediving and powerboat racing. I knew only too well how they would both complain about the restrictions on them of doing these things when they were filming. The companies did not want to take the risk during a film production.
"The thing is, Mike," Phil stated, "it makes sense for us to move the property into a trust."
"How?" I asked.
"I've produced and directed four films now, all of which have been critically acclaimed. Two have been box-office hits. The other two did not do badly; at least they made a return. In this business, that is saying something.
"Some time or other I am going to have a flop. All producers do. The thing is, I don't want a flop to endanger our businesses."
"How could it?" I asked.
"Because of personal guarantees," Phil responded. "There have been a couple of times I have been asked to give a guarantee to a backer that they will at least get their money back. I suspect that I will be asked to on That Woman's Son; one of our major potential backers has already indicated that she would be prepared to take a lower cut if we can offer her some assurance on a return. She knows we can't accept the assurance for the cut she is asking for at the moment.
"The thing is that if everything went really pear-shaped, they would probably come after our assets. Most of our businesses are property-based. As things stand at the moment, they could go after the property. If it is in trust for Johnny, then they can't touch it. As long as we have access to the property, even if it is held in the trust, we can restart our businesses. The trust is not only to provide something for Johnny, but it gives us some protection. Anyway, where else are we going to leave our money? It was always going to go to Johnny eventually."
"What if you adopt?" I asked. "You might even have a child by a surrogate mother."
"Not going to happen," Ben stated.
"How can you be so sure? You're in a civil partnership, so there is nothing to stop you."
Ben looked at Phil. There was some unspoken interaction between them, then Phil nodded.
"Look, Mike, I am going to tell you something that only a few people know," Phil said. "I need to keep it that way." I nodded my consent. Phil continued, "When I was sixteen, well the Saturday before I was sixteen, I had a birthday party. I was sixteen on the Monday. My best friend back then, Leni Taylor, was to be fifteen on the Friday before.
"We had a party for the pair of us at the Welfare on the Saturday afternoon. After the party, Leni and I slipped away and went back to his place. We knew his parents would be at the Welfare until quite late. We had done this loads of times since we had been about twelve, and there had never been a problem. This time, though, his mother came looking for Leni and found us in bed together.
"It was not nice. She called the police. They charged me. Was up before the Juvenile Magistrate on the Monday and got probation. That's why mam sent me to her sister in Queen's Park, which resulted in me going to theatre school. Leni was not so lucky; he was stuck up in Stock. Word of what happened leaked out, and he got severely bullied over it. Ended up stabbing one of his bullies and got four years.
"Yes, Mike," Phil interrupted. "Leni is our driver-cum-handyman. Actually, he's our general factotum — keeps the London place running for us. He couldn't get a job when he came out, so he got into more trouble. Ended up doing a five-stretch. I had lost track of him, but mam used to keep me up with the local gossip and sent me a cutting from the paper regarding him being given five. Went and saw him in HMP Stafford. Told him to keep in touch and to get some qualifications. He did both. I was just making a name for myself when he got out. I helped him get a job and a place to live. A couple of years later, I got disqualified from driving for two years, so needed a driver. Leni applied, and I gave him the job. That was just about when I met Ben. Ben's known about my history with Leni from the start. Anyway, never been a problem as Leni is straight. Might be a bit of bi in him, but he is mostly straight."
"But what has this to do with the trust?" I asked.
"I have a conviction for a sexual offence with a minor under the age of sixteen," Phil replied. "There is no way they are going to let me adopt. Social Services have made that quite clear; we tried to adopt about five years ago. When Dorothy found out her cancer was terminal, she asked us to take Toby; he was six then. We started the procedure, but Social Services blocked it. They also made it quite clear that if we adopted abroad or had a surrogate, the child would be removed from our care the moment we entered the country.
"That's why we are not going to adopt or have a surrogate child." Ben moved over next to Phil and put his arm around him.
"It's a bloody juvenile offence," I commented. "It should not show on the records."
"It doesn't count for most purposes; it is only on the enhanced search that is needed for adoption or fostering that it shows up," Ben told me.
The idea of the trust made a lot more sense to me now.
"Anyway, we'd better get a move on," Phil said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, Ben and I have a lot to get sorted out for your stag night."
"Yes, don't worry. We will enjoy it."