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Ross Collier

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Sink or Swim
by Ross Collier   

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Books by Ross Collier
· Tug of War
· The Fenians
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Publisher:  Jacobyte Books ISBN-10:  1741001684 Type: 


Copyright:  2003

Harry Gordon, sports hero and merchant banker, finds that despite his best efforts, a year after taking over the family steel business it is on the brink of collapse.
Then he discovers that the seemingly random events leading to this point are not simply related to market forces.
In a race against time that becomes a matter of life and death, Harry is forced to draw on all his skill and courage to avoid certain disaster.

Jacobyte Books

Chapter One

"Bad news," he'd said in a none too steady voice. He'd been right. I glanced at my watch – ten-thirty, almost three hours since George Raymond phoned. Three hours that felt like three days. I slumped back in the chair.
My gaze wandered around the office with its sixties decor and wood paneling, my father's one indulgence in an otherwise austere cream brick building. He had started the business from scratch, soon after the war, and slowly built it over the years to become one of the bigger fishes in a small pond of competitors.
Apart from the computer sitting on my desk, the plastic covered printout folders and the slatted blinds over the aluminium-framed window, nothing had changed from the first day I'd walked in. Office re-decoration hadn't been high on my list of priorities. Now I tried to remember what exactly had been high? My ego?
I looked at the mess of files on my desk and thought about then and now. A little over a year ago I'd been working comfortably in a merchant bank. Playing with other people's money, Dad called it, a pursuit that to his mind was both unsavoury and unproductive. For my part, the expected succession into the family business had never appealed, a grievous sin for an only son, but necessary for sanity's sake. The old man could be dominating, an autocrat devoid of benevolence, working with him a guarantee of either total subservience or an on-going battle of wills. I'd chosen to avoid the issue completely, something he couldn't understand and, I suspected, never forgave me for. And neither had Edna, I reminded myself.
The image flashed through my mind again. Unfamiliar angles of arms and legs, the unrelenting stillness of the body.
"It wasn't unusual for her to be at work that early? Between seven and seven thirty?"
The two detectives sat grimly on the other side of my desk, their matter-of-fact manner and cool efficiency in stark contrast to the turmoil created by unexpected death.
"No it wasn't."
My voice sounded strangely distant, dislocated from the thoughts tumbling through my mind. I suppose I was in shock. Edna Harvey, my father's secretary for as long as I could remember and for the last twelve months mine; dead.
Senior Sergeant Jack Martin asked most of the questions while Detective Sergeant Frank Auburn took notes.
"And why would that be, Mr Gordon? Did she start work at that time?"
"No, eight-thirty. Usually the office staff start at eight-thirty but," I shrugged, "if her workload increased she often came in early. She always said that if you lived alone, you needed to keep occupied."
The comment, I knew, was a criticism of me, leveled in the form of homespun philosophy. Like a bad report card, I'd been failed on effort and application. From the start, Edna had made it clear that she would tolerate me only out of respect for my father. For my part, I felt I didn't have much choice. She was old, had worked for the business for a long time and despite everything, I thought of her affectionately, almost as part of our extended family. The fact remained, though, that in her eyes at least, I simply wasn't good enough, and my record so far had proved her right.
Martin looked at me quizzically, his policeman's mind uncertain whether I'd answered the question.
"It's a rostered day off today," I explained more fully. "Once a month we operate with a skeleton staff, the factory closes completely and the office runs at half strength. Edna probably started early to give herself time to get organised, she supervised all the clerical work." As an afterthought I added, "She was conscientious."
Like all understatements the truth lay in what hadn't been said. Edna ruled the office with an iron fist. Tall and gaunt, a spinster with an old schoolteacherish manner and the childless person's intolerance of the younger members of staff, she could be difficult and abrasive. Few, if any, hid their dislike of her and I couldn't blame them. During the last twelve months I'd spent more time than warranted smoothing ruffled egos and listening to tearful complaints, the direct result of her blunt outbursts.
Martin read my mind. "Miss Harvey wasn't particularly popular with her co-workers, I gather?"
Apart from the inflection in his voice, it was as much a statement of fact as a question. The conclusion wouldn't have been hard to draw from his interviews with the others, although it had little to do with the morning's tragedy.
He looked late thirties, wore his wiry sandy hair at regulation length and when on his feet stood taller than my six feet. But it was his size and stern manner that dominated his presence. He carried more than enough bulk to fill the visitor's chair he now occupied, the familiar office furniture appearing to have shrunk in around him. His face, a broad, flushed, unrevealing mask, had displayed little more than a frown during the last hour. He had a double chin framed by jowls, and watery pale grey eyes that revealed absolutely nothing of his inner thoughts.
"Is that a question?" I asked. Edna's popularity seemed irrelevant and a waste of time. The files scattered across my desk, profit and loss statements and cash forecasts, reminded me of other pressing matters. I had to prepare for a meeting with the company's bank, a difficult one, and selfishly I began to resent the intrusion on my time. Martin's head tilted slightly, his version of an affirmative nod.
"No, I suppose she wasn't," I said with a touch of guilt at putting business before Edna's death. Then, with a shock, I realised where he might be leading and added quickly, "But no-one would have," I struggled to find the words, "hated her enough to do that."
I meant it. Even the most disgruntled of staff were a long way short of murderous. Certainly a long way short of shattering the back of Edna's skull to a bloody pulp. The same revulsion I felt when I first received the phone call at home rose inside me again.
Auburn, a younger, noticeably lighter and more animated version of Martin, lifted his eyes from the note pad and leant forward reassuringly.
"We're not suggesting anything like that, Mr Gordon. At this stage we've no reason to assume that anything other than what appears to have happened, in fact took place. She unfortunately disturbed a burglary and, well, these people are almost always desperate." He sat back again, adding, "And violent. Whoever's responsible could have known about the rostered day off and wouldn't have expected to find anyone here. She may even have confronted them." His gravelly voice seemed friendlier than Martin's monotone and on the whole felt a lot less intimidating.
Assuming they had asked the right questions, and undoubtedly they had, he would already know that Edna, given the opportunity, would have confronted anyone. For as long as I could remember, Edna had never been afraid of speaking her mind or letting her feelings be known. Even as a child I had recognised her unspoken but unmistakable messages of reprimand. After my mother died, if the housekeeper had gone on holidays or baby-sitters were in short supply, my father would bring 'his offspring' to the office. Edna never had to raise her voice to make sure we played quietly and I couldn't help wondering now how she would have approached the unsuspecting burglar.
As a thirty-year-old, I had still found her silent criticisms unambiguous and crystal clear. In her opinion I should have been there a long time ago, working at my father's side instead of pursuing my own career. More to the point, after his fatal stroke, the indecision I displayed over whether to sell or keep the family business intact simply confirmed my irresponsible and selfish attitude.
"Before I forget," Martin said, "I want you to check this list for anything that might have been missed." He put both hands on the arms of the chair and with some effort pushed himself forward in the seat. His large paw of a hand passed me the handwritten sheet that listed the contents of the safe and as I read each line, I mentally checked off the items. The cash sales float and petty cash float, fifteen hundred and five hundred dollars respectively, both had a cross next to them and the word 'missing' scrawled after that. Various banking books, postage stamps, keys, accounts listings and debtors and creditors information were similarly itemised but followed by a tick. Present and accounted for. Two thousand dollars, the value that someone had placed on human life.
"Everything seems to be there," I said handing it back to him, "but perhaps you'd better check with Clive Richardson. That's more his area of responsibility."
Martin sighed and eased himself back into the seat. When he stopped squirming he looked at me, his face flushed and his bottom lip pushed up in a scowl.
"Mr Richardson already helped us with the list but he's shaken up. I wanted to get it checked."
Clive had been the one who first found Edna, enough of a sight to shake anyone up. When I viewed the scene it was with warning and even then I found it sickening. Edna's body sprawled and strangely twisted. The sight of her frail legs and arms unnaturally bent and her harsh face harsher with the fixed grimace of death. But it was the wound that I couldn't forget. An open gaping hole where one shouldn't have been. The shattered bits of bone and pieces of flesh, and of course the blood.
I shivered. "We'll get a taxi to take Clive home when you've finished," I said, "and I'll let his son know what's happened."
Short and bespectacled, Clive Richardson looked the consummate small company accountant. He had worked with my father for almost forty years, in that time compiling a formidable amount of knowledge about the business. Dad believed the decisions were his to make and his alone, but with my lack of industry experience I relied on Clive heavily, checking assumptions and ideas supposed to improve our efficiency and grow our sales. He had been uncritical of the changes I'd made to try to save the situation and equally uncritical when they hadn't worked. For that I was grateful.
"He may need sedation. Better mention to his son about getting a doctor," Martin suggested. Until then he had shown no sense of the emotions flowing around him, although the flat inflection in his voice revealed, I suspected, no more sincerity than if he had been quoting from police standing orders. It must, I thought, be strange to have murder as part of your everyday life, part of the daily routine of going to work for a living. The Senior Sergeant had developed an impenetrable shell, polite, efficient and tough. "Now, back to Miss Harvey. Her next of kin? Any idea where to start?"
Edna had lived most of her life with her mother and she had died in peaceful old age several years ago. "As far as I know there isn't anyone," I shrugged. Apart from the odd outing to the theatre or the opera and her occasional overseas holiday, Edna lived a quiet, frugal existence. Dad had always helped with the major decisions in her life – investments, insurance, her will. "I can give you the name of her trustees, they're the same as my father's. They may be able to help."
Auburn, the more clerical of the two looked up. "Thanks, that'd be helpful." I fished around in the top drawer of the desk for my card holder, found it, found the right entry and pushed it across to him.
Martin watched the process blankly and when his junior colleague had finished said, "As Constable Auburn pointed out, we seem to have a disturbed burglary. The security fence has been neatly cut, the office door would have been opened without too much bother and the safe key," he paused, his features rearranging into a disapproving scowl, "well, let's just say that it wasn't exactly hidden."
At another time I might have pointed out that manufacturing companies aren't supposed to be banks, the most that had been stolen in the past were paper clips and pens. Instead I sat and nodded.
"We'll also need to stop all access to that office until forensic give us the nod."
I couldn't imagine there would be much trouble keeping staff away. I wouldn't be hurrying back there myself. "Fine," I agreed.
"We're still questioning your people, but with the factory closed for the day, and a half roster in here, it isn't likely that anyone saw anything. After that and forensic, all we can do is ask a lot of questions, and we'll certainly do that." He paused as if emphasising an important point. "We'll keep our ear to the ground. Sooner or later we'll get a tip, especially if it's someone we already know."
It had been the most words I'd heard the Senior Sergeant speak at one time. A none too friendly tone and an unencouraging reassurance that they'd get their man. The only expression on his face came from the sparse red-haired eyebrows. They moved once.
The two men stood. Auburn nimbly and Martin with a degree of effort.
"We'll be questioning people who live in the area and once we check through our interviews we'll probably be back to clarify details. It usually happens, so we'll be in and out of the place." Auburn's likeable smile and friendly tone made me relax. He had the familiarity of someone I had known for a long time.
"Fine," I said. "Whatever you have to do. Will you need an area to work from?"
"No. We'll come and go. That's how it tends to work. Sometimes you'll see us and sometimes you wont. We'll try not to be too disruptive." He smiled again as if he knew something and I didn't.
I stood too and as they moved to go Martin turned back, pointing behind me.
"Tell me, what are those bits of steel over there for?" He was looking at some shelves behind my desk.
"They're pieces of reinforcing steel rod. We process it, twist it actually, to increase the strength. They're offcuts from tensile strength tests. I've had a few chromed as paper weights." We were in the steel and wire mesh business, nothing glamorous, reinforcing for concrete. The samples were up to six inches long, in a variety of diameters. As a novelty we'd had them made up as give-aways for customers. "Would you like one?" I offered.
Auburn looked pleased but Martin scowled with a near imperceptible shake of the head, so I opened one of the sliding doors below the shelf and took one out.
"Thanks," Auburn said. "They're heavy aren't they?"
"Guaranteed to keep the paper work in place," I agreed. "Although it's the last thing I need." I glanced with disgust at the overload on my own desk.
He looked as if he understood. Then they nodded goodbye and headed out the door, Martin followed by Auburn.
After they left, I stood quietly for a moment, absorbing the silence, feeling reality begin to set in. How many times, I thought, had I been into this office? I couldn't guess. Because nothing in the décor had changed and because most of the staff had stayed, everything about this business represented a constant in my life. Had represented a constant, I reminded myself. Now I could sense a shift had taken place. Something I didn't like the feel of.
No longer could I allow myself to wallow in the memories. My father, his bald head fringed by grey short hair, his trimmed British military moustache and his short-sleeved shirts had never changed in all the time I could remember. Always there, sitting behind the large desk, always in command. Every hour of every day the business absorbed his life, he talked about it at the breakfast table and I'm sure when he went to bed he dreamt about it too.
In her own way, Edna had been the same. She had lived the business in its entirety, starting as a junior and working her way to the powerful and privileged position of the boss's secretary. She always had the business's best interests at heart, always adopted a proprietary air of responsibility, was always dependable and reliable.
I went back to my chair and slumped into it, trying to settle a horrible bout of self-doubt that had taken grip. Was I kidding myself? Did everyone see it but me? A company hurtling out of control and a blind fool at the helm?
The two policemen had provided a sense of security. Someone to hand the disaster to. They represented professionalism and promised solutions with a strong feeling that they would get the job done. If only they could offer the same help elsewhere with balance sheets and financials, I would breathe a lot easier. But it wasn't to be. Their questions had been a distraction. Now I had to face the fact, we would have to pick up the pieces. Edna was dead but the world hadn't stopped.

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