“He’s probably just impatient for his evening drink”, said Peter Jones to Polly as the bell calling him to Lord Allenby’s study rang for the second time.

He picked up the silver tray which already held the bottles of gin and of tonic water, a single glass, and a small silver ice bucket full of the little cubes of ice that would accompany the drink. Its lid was back on, to hold in the coolness, and a pair of tongs lay next to it. The display was completed by a single lemon on a rectangular silver dish, from the middle of which four slices had already been cut. The remaining pieces were upturned at either end of the straight line the slices had been positioned in. Next to the dish lay a small knife, ready to assist if more were required. He held the tray expertly in one hand, while using the other to stop the movement of the bottle of gin that lifting it from the table had caused then exited the very spacious kitchen by a doorway that opened into a dark mahogany hall. He opened the door into Lord Allenby’s study with his now free hand and stepped inside. Lord Allenby was sat in a comfortable looking winged chair, beneath a tall wooden floor standing lamp which provided the light he needed to read the leather bound book resting on his lap.

“Ah, Jeeves”, Lord Allenby said, “it’s way past eight o’clock you know.”

Peter glanced at the clock on the wall, showing it to be about four minutes past eight, as he poured a measure of gin into the glass.

“I know Sir”, he replied, “I’m sorry to be so late. I was unpacking a delivery of wines into the cellar”, he explained. He used the tongs to take two cubes of ice and dropped them into the glass. They made a satisfying tinkle as they hit the bottom then bounced up again. He garnished the drink with a slice of lemon, lifted in place using the knife, then topped up the glass from the bottle of tonic water. He set the tray now containing the completed drink down on a small table next to Lord Allenby’s chair.

“Will that be all, Sir?” he enquired, knowing that it was a phrase Lord Allenby liked to hear as often as possible.

“For now, yes”, said Lord Allenby, taking a good gulp from the glass. “Probably it for the night,” he continued, “unless we get any late visitors … not expecting any though.”

“Very good, Sir, thank you Sir”, said Peter. He didn’t salute or snap his heels together but implied it in how he spoke. Turning, he left the room again leaving Lord Allenby to refill the glass as required.

Peter hated being so servile, but it was expected from him both by Lord Allenby himself and by his visitors, as well as the other various family members that made up the house’s occupants.

He relaxed slightly now that he wasn’t being watched by anyone and made his way back to the kitchen.

He was tall and thin, in his late 40s with dark brown hair that had receded up his forehead as the years progressed until it reached the top where it had stopped. What remained at each side and at the back was now flecked with touches of grey. His uniform of black tailcoat and light-coloured trousers as well as his physical appearance, made him look everything a stereotypical butler should be.

His salary for tending to Lord Allenby’s needs was not large, but the position was a live-in one so he had no expenses to meet save for the odd personal requirement he might have from time to time. He more than doubled his salary by buying astutely all the provisions that the house got through and could expect to add the same amount again from the maintenance budget he controlled each year. They were things that technically should have been overseen by Lady Allenby but she was happy enough to leave everything to him to arrange.

Over the five years that he had been in the position he had creamed off a good deal of money in a variety of ways. The most straightforward, and probably the most lucrative, was to make up work to be done from the maintenance budget or to inflate the price of jobs that really needed doing. He had soon made arrangements with a local builder to do this in exchange for the real work and for the occasional cut of the proceeds such dealings brought in. Skimming off of the provisions budget too was quite easy. He had arrangements with two of the local merchants to short deliver some goods and to overcharge for what they did supply. Again, they got a small cut of the profit this brought in, enough to reward them for their efforts and for their silence. Even without the extra money, the amount of business they would lose if he should move it to a different supplier would be sizeable. His other main trick was to switch drinks with cheaper brands. He had to be more careful with this. Lord Allenby himself wouldn’t be able to tell the difference — for example the gin he was drinking now which he thought a very expensive one was in fact a cheap brand transferred to an expensive one’s bottle. Some of Lord Allenby’s visitors though would be able to tell the difference so Peter was careful to note who would be consuming the various drinks he was offering up. He usually decanted all but the finest wines so that it would be easier to explain if this subterfuge was discovered. He didn’t make vast amounts of money from this practice, but it all added up to a very tidy sum indeed.

Recently though he began to think Lord Allenby might have become suspicious. He was certainly taking a far greater interest in the household’s day-to-day affairs. This hadn’t stopped at raising questions with Lady Allenby but had manifested in conversations with the local merchants and with the builder when he was on site to carry out the various works that needed doing.

He had remembered a conversation Lord Allenby had been having with one of the many people who visited him here that encompassed maintenance schedules and competitive tendering for its completion.

Peter had been caught and jailed for similar offences before. He had had to think very smartly to disguise this fact from the agency that had put him forward for this position. If he was caught again the resulting penalty would probably be far stiffer than it had been the first time. Worse still, they might track down and recover the funds he had put aside from the enterprise so that he could retire soon in comfort. Losing that would be impossible to make up, especially if he would have to do it after another prison sentence.

He had been much more careful since he had heard that conversation, stopping his maintenance scams completely and dramatically cutting back on exchanging cheaper brands for dearer ones. He had pretty much continued raising money off of the provisions though. That was much harder to spot, and a sudden fall in expenditure there each week would be hard to explain itself.

He needed to resume his activities soon though if he was to reach his target of having enough set aside to quit this horrible job in a few more months and allow him to live out his remaining years very comfortably. He just about had enough already but it would mean watching his expenditure carefully, something he wasn’t keen on doing if he could possibly avoid it.

He walked right through the kitchen to the small office which adjoined it, returning to the brown swivel chair he had been sitting in before being summoned by Lord Allenby. He picked up the delivery note for the wines he had just unpacked. For a change the printed list matched exactly what had been delivered that evening.

“Do you think the provisions budget would stretch to buying in the food for the party’s guests?” asked Polly through the door. “That way, I can concentrate fully on his lordship’s and Mr Julian’s plates. It would save me a lot of time too, so I could still do all the other things that need doing.”

Both James and Julian suffered from a long list of food related allergies, which meant that they always had to be very careful about what they ate. Even small amounts of the wrong thing could make either of them very ill, or worse.

Peter thought about the request for a few moments before replying. Bringing in ready-made food instead of ingredients would provide a good opportunity for him, and parties of the size Lord Allenby was planning didn’t happen very often.

“I dare say we could encourage her ladyship to find the extra cash that would need”, he replied. “Why don’t you make a list of what you need that I can get priced up, then we can let her know exactly how much it’s going to cost.”

The chance to add to his savings was too good to miss. He was sure he could come to some suitable arrangement with one of the catering firms in the locality, in fact he already had one in mind. He could easily find expensive competitors so that he could present two or three quotes to make it appear that he had shopped around to get a good deal.

He put the delivery note back down and turned off the desk lamp he had been reading it by.

“I think I’ll call it quits for the day”, he said to Polly as he moved back into the kitchen. From the several trays of raw food on the table it looked like she would be working till late again. “You’ll still be about to answer the door or the bell if his lordship wants anything else, will you?” he asked and smiled to himself when she replied that she would.

“Think I’ll pop out for an hour or so then, see if they’ve still got that guest beer down the local. It’s rather nice.” If he was lucky, it would also have just the person he needed to talk to about supplies for the forthcoming party.

He walked to the pub. He didn’t leave the Manor often enough, or travel far enough when he did, to justify the expense of keeping a car himself. It was only a short walk away and no doubt one of the pub’s regulars could be persuaded to run him to the Manor if he didn’t feel up to the stroll back or if the weather unexpectedly got bad. If that failed he could always get a taxi, though they usually groaned throughout the journey that it was such a short trip.

When he entered the pub, just the man he had hoped to find was sitting at the bar counter, nursing an almost finished pint of beer.

“I’ll have a pint of Speckled Hen”, said Peter standing directly beside the man, “and a pint of whatever Jim’s having for himself.”

Jim Frazer eyed him suspiciously. It was unlike Peter to buy anyone else a drink. Certainly it was the first time he had ever done so for Jim.

“I’m glad I found you here Jim, I was hoping I might.” He spoke while their pints were being drawn. “I may have a bit of business for you, if we can come to a suitable arrangement.”

Jim perked up. He was always ready to talk business, no matter how many pints he might have had. Peter waited until the fresh beers were poured and set down in front of them, paying with a five pound note and tutting when the barman told him the price.

“Not at the counter”, Peter said, as he was pocketing the change the barman brought. “Let’s take a seat over there where we can talk more privately.”

He carried both pints to an empty table in the corner of the pub. Jim rose from the stool he was sat on, then drained the last of the beer from the glass, returning it once emptied to the counter top before following Peter.

* * *

“I had a bit of luck last night”, he told Polly the next morning over the breakfast they were eating at the kitchen table. “I ran into Jim Frazer and he gave me this.” He slid a printed card across the table to Polly. It listed all of the types of food that they could want to serve to the guests, ranging from a simple sausage on a stick to a more complicated, and naturally far more expensive, crab and smoked salmon canapé served on a mild cheese flavoured cracker. He had carefully cut off the bottom quarter of an inch which announced that ‘all prices include VAT’. Cost was something that wouldn’t involve Polly anyway, and he would ensure he took the delivery enabling him to do his usual trick of claiming more items had arrived than actually did.

“You won’t even have to list what you want this way,” he said helpfully. “Just write down the quantities you will need next to each of the items and leave the rest to me.”

He would inflate the quantities of the larger value items and split the profits with Jim as they had agreed the previous evening. Jim would also add VAT to the bill a second time and all of that money would come to Peter. He would pay the bill in cash so that Jim didn’t have to declare it. All in all, it should make both of them a few bob. It’d cost Peter another 3 pints to finally persuade Jim to go along with his plan but eventually he had even managed to get the names of two other firms who would be sure to charge more than Jim would, and a lift from him back to the manor house when their business was concluded.

‘Not bad for 90 minutes work’, thought Peter to himself.

“Yes”, said Polly as she scanned the list Peter had passed to her, “this should do very nicely. I’ll work out quantities and write them all down this evening.”

“Well, see that you do,” said Peter, “that way I can get quotes from other sources tomorrow. Oh,” he added, “don’t worry about the prices, it isn’t every day his lordship turns 60, and we want to ensure that the party is a success so order plenty and best concentrate on the fancier items.”

The bigger the final bill, the bigger his profit, he was really thinking.

Getting Lady Hazel to agree to having the buffet bought in rather than making it in the Manor’s kitchen was even easier than he thought it would be. It was harder to convince her that his preferred supplier — Jim Frazer — was more than capable of meeting their needs. She had wanted to use one of the other caterers, even though their quotations were somewhat higher than Jim’s. She had heard of both firms before and, indeed, been to an affair that one of them had catered. If she remembered correctly the food they had served had been very nice. Eventually though against his arguments about cost, and about supporting local ventures, she had agreed that they should use Jim.

“I’ll blame it on you though, if it all goes wrong, so be sure he’s up to scratch.” She was laughing lightly as she spoke, though Peter knew that if it proved necessary she really would go through with her threat.

The days leading up to the party were a little easier on Peter than usual. He still had a variety of duties to perform but Lord Allenby was away from home. His lordship kept Peter as busy as all the other residents put together, expecting him to bring drinks, carry cases and a myriad of other small tasks that he would rather call on Peter to do than perform for himself. Even Mr Julian’s return home, with many cases of clothes and equipment and a case sent back with him by Lord Allenby, didn’t really add much to his workload. Mr Julian was very self-sufficient and usually did things for himself when Lord Allenby wasn’t around to glare at him when he did.

When the food arrived he made a big show of checking it off against the delivery note, for Polly’s benefit, as Jim brought in plateful after plateful on wooden trays that he carried in from his Ford Transit van. Jim left the plates on these trays to make it easier to take them through to the ballroom when it was time. Each plate was plain white but of good quality, and wrapped in Clingfilm to keep the contents fresh. When the time was right all that needed doing was laying them out on the room’s sideboards and the Clingfilm removing just before the guests started to arrive. He would supervise, but not do the actual work himself. Fred Davis and his parents would be helping out for the evening and should arrive soon. It was a job they could carry out as their first task. He took the delivery note through to his office and slipped it into a drawer of the desk there. He wasn’t sure why he hid it away. Even if Polly saw it, which was unlikely, he doubted very much that she would spot the discrepancy between what she said they needed and what he and Jim would claim was delivered. It just seemed to him the right thing to do.

When Fred arrived, accompanied by his parents, Peter passed them the smart uniforms that had been hired for them to wear, telling them they could change in his office. He left them to do so, determining to have one last check of the ballroom to see that everything was in order there before the food was laid out.

Everything seemed to be fine. The tables, each covered with a gleaming white cloth, had been moved to one corner of the ballroom and were waiting to display the plates when they were brought through. He had set up a separate table for drinks, which he would man himself once the bulk of the guests had arrived. Until then, while he answered the door Polly could operate it. While he was checking the ballroom, Julian came in.

“Ah, just the man I was looking for,” he said to Peter. He held out the gift bag that he was carrying in one hand. “Got a rather nice bottle of Chablis here, gift to his lordship from John Giles. Thought you could open it up and let him drink the toast with it.”

Peter took the bag from Julian and tried to slide out the box that it contained. He wasn’t very successful, tearing a small hole in the top of the bag with one of the corners of the box. He tried again with as much success as before. Despairing of opening it and keeping the bag in one piece he ripped the top of the bag so that he could grasp the box firmly and slide it out. When it was free of its wrapping, he opened the box and took out the bottle it contained, holding it to the light to better read the label.

“Ah yes”, he said, “very nice. It’ll need to breathe a little but I won’t open it yet, Mr Julian. I’ll do it about an hour before the toast.”

“Don’t go giving it to anyone else now, or sneaking some for yourself. It’s a fine vintage and I’m sure Lord Allenby will want it all to himself.” Julian smiled as he spoke but said it in a way that left no doubt that he meant his words. Peter put the bottle down under the drinks table and set the alarm on his watch to ring at ten forty to remind him to open it. Julian had already left the ballroom when, satisfied with his preparations so far, Peter returned to the kitchen.

It was time to take the plates through, and he directed the Davis’ to do so. He followed, and watched their work, changing the position of some plates now and then to best present them. Finally, before the guests started to arrive, he gave them all instructions on what each of their tasks were for the night. He had already had this conversation with Polly so didn’t need to again. He had just finished this and sent everyone through to start removing the plates’ Clingfilm which they had left on to protect the food until it was time, when the front doorbell rang. The first of the guests had arrived.