It appeared to be serendipitous.
Their appointed watcher spotted an opportunity: a firm likely to go bust shortly. It was a long established business, selling old-style, "classic" furniture to the upper classes; the higher echelons of society. This was a market that had been dubious for a long while.
Furniture, particularly quality well-made pieces, had a ready market on the colony planet of Rehome, if it was at the right price. The colonists wanted furniture that would last for years, and not fall to bits too readily, as much modern furniture had a tendency to do. The Lownie business group catered to supplying the retail market on Rehome with a wide range of goods that were not readily obtainable in the circumstances of a recently established colony, light years from Earth. Furniture for the home was a good seller, if it was the right price, they had found, so another opportunity to add to this sector was welcome.
A telephone call to the firm was the first step. A young lady answered. "Hello? Tompkins Quality Furnishing - Furniture for the Discerning. Can I help you to find what you need?"
"Can I speak to the owner of the business, please?"
"Certainly, sir. Whom shall I say is calling?"
"Alexander Lownie. I am in the business of bulk purchasing of furniture, should the price be right."
"Hold on sir. I shall get Mrs. Blenkinsop for you." There was a brief hiatus, as the call was put on hold while Mrs Blenkinsop was briefed to take it over in her own apartment upstairs.
"Hello? Mr Downie, is it? " The voice was elderly, and a bit shaky. "What can I do for you?"
"Lownie, madam, if I may be permitted to correct you. Mrs Blenkinsop, I understand that your business may be up for sale shortly, and I am looking for such a business opportunity as far as your stock is concerned. However, my available resources do not stretch very far, so we would have to negotiate a price that satisfies both me and you."
"I don't know about you buying the business, young man. This firm has been selling to the gentry for nigh on a hundred years, and we have a good, well-established name among the better class of person in this country, I assure you."
"I am sure you are quite correct in what you say, Mrs. Blenkinsop. Nevertheless, time moves on, and markets develop new tastes and any firms that cannot cater for the new clientele, with their new tastes, end up having to close."
"Close? Certainly not, young man. We are simply affected by a temporary downturn in the economy, and people are tightening their belts. This has happened in the past, and we have always got over such temporary awkwardness."
"I take your point, Mrs Blenkinsop. Who knows the vagaries of the market? You may be right, madam, but it is always wise to explore the possibilities of realising cash from a dwindling asset value, don't you agree?"
"Of course. I am not averse to looking at all aspects of the business. I keep telling my granddaughter that we should explore making the business more attractive to our core customers, but she seems to think we should be selling flat packs via the Internet, of all things! As if our clientele made use of such new-fangled technology! Our clientele look for quality, high quality, and we provide that class of furnishings. We have a name, a name that is valued by our clientele, and to go downmarket is not the way we should be looking, I say."
"That is a viewpoint I would happily agree with, madam, but unfortunately I am not looking for a business that would be continuing to trade, so your esteemed business name has no value for my company, I regret to say."
"What? You would close down my business!"
"Madam, I assure you that I would do no such thing. Your business is closing itself down, through your clientele become less and less willing to pay your prices for quality furniture; or perhaps they themselves are not looking for such quality these days. Modern times, dear lady!
It is an unfortunate situation, but every cloud has a silver lining, and I am willing to purchase your entire stock. This would admittedly be at knockdown prices, but you would be able to lay your hands on a large pile of ready cash, instead of sitting on furniture that is not readily shifting into the hands of your normal clientele, or so I am informed. Shall we at least start by having a look at your stock?"
"Well, I have no objections to you looking at my stock, but you would have to get my grandchild to show you around. I am not as mobile as I used to be. I took over the business from my own grandfather, you know - Alfred Tompkins, the founder.
My father was killed in the Great War, and Mum pined away until she died – she was not much use to anyone - so grandfather was left in charge well past his "sell-by" date. He was a doddery old fool, not understanding half of what was said to him, or what he was doing, when the lawyer finally got him to agree to hand it over to me, but I and my husband put the business back on its feet by buttering up our customers, and we did well for many years before the Lord took my injured Samuel into his arms for eternity.
I had hoped that my late daughter might stay in the business, but she married a wastrel and that would not do. Her own daughter helps me out now, doing what she can for the business, but that girl has some peculiar ideas about sales techniques."
Sye Lownie commented, "Mrs Blenkinsop, I am a great admirer of enterprise such as you have shown in the past, madam, but today that enterprise has changed, and new ways of disposing of your stock have to be looked at. I may have a possible market – a very DISTANT market that I can locate for your stock, but like other people, they do not have the readily available cash that one aspires to, and so I have to find a way of getting them quality goods at prices they can afford. Have a word with your granddaughter about showing me your stock, and I shall ring back tomorrow to make an appointment for viewing."
"Very well, Mr. Downie. Farewell."
Sye put the phone down, and sighed at the woman's repeated mistake. He said to Gail, "I do hope the granddaughter proves to be more on the ball. I need a competent person to deal with."
He remembered to phone the next day, and when the girl answered, he gave his name and his requirement to visit the furniture store's warehouse.
"Oh, yes, sir. Granny gave me the key and asked me to show you round. The old dear doesn't really know what we have in stock, so she relies on me to keep an eye on things. Your visit would have to be this evening, as I can't leave the shop unattended during opening times."
"Don't you have an assistant to cover for you?"
"I do, but this is her day off, and I couldn't demand that she come in just for a short while. Is 8 p.m. all right for you? The warehouse is a little way off: low rental normally determines the location of a warehouse, but this one is actually owned by the firm and has been in the family for absolute eons!"
"I do hope it has been maintained, and that the stock has not been affected by damp."
"Don't worry about that, sir. There are no leaks in the roof, I am pleased to say. The warehouse itself is one of our business assets, never mind the contents."
"Thanks you for your candour, young lady. My interest is in the contents, rather than the building, so if you would prefer that the business disposes of the warehouse separately, that is fine by me."
"I hadn't really thought, sir. Granny is the owner of title, so I shall speak to her about that point. Here is the address of the warehouse: if you can be there at 8 p.m. I will let you in, unless our cleaner is working in the area at the time."
At the appointed time, Sye stepped out of his taxi, and looked for the warehouse door. There was no name in evidence, but the number on the door was correct, so he pressed the door buzzer.
Within moments the door opened, and a young woman stood there. "Mr. Lownie, is it?" she asked.
"Indeed it is, my dear."
"You are younger than I expected, Mr. Lownie. I am Claire Johnston."
"That is a fine compliment you pay me, my dear Claire. You, yourself, are also quite young to be in such a responsible position in the business."
"Please come in, Mr. Lownie. I am afraid I am an only grandchild, and my parents are dead, so all the problems devolve to me, I am afraid."
"Is Mrs. Blenkinsop a widow, then? She sounded a trifle old, on the phone."
"She is getting on in years. Her husband died from war wounds, so she has been a widow for a long time, sir. Can I show you around the place?" She raised her voice to call loudly: "Effie? Will you put on some extra lights?"
The unseen Effie clearly heard her, as more lights cam on, illuminating the store more effectively. "Feel free to wander about, if you wish, Mr. Lownie, though I only have fifteen minutes or so, before I have to leave for another appointment. You will have to leave with me, for security and insurance reasons. I gather this visit is to give you an impression of our stock profile?"
"That is so, my dear. It will assist me in considering what figure would be most appropriate to offer for the total stock."
"Well, I think you will be quite impressed with all this, sir."
Sye said nothing more, and instead started to prowl the lanes between the furniture that was built up on steel frames to allow up to three layers above the floor. He looked at what was visible on each side, and walked along, moving his head from side to side, as he went. Getting to the end of the lane, he went round and into the next lane, and slowly but carefully examined the total contents.
Arriving back at the door, he said to Claire, "Thank you for that tour, my dear. I must return to my office and make some notes on the contents while it is all fresh in my mind." She showed him out, and shook his hand. "I look forward to hearing further from you, Mr. Lownie."
"Be assured of that, Claire. It was a most interesting and illuminating visit. Good night."
He walked round, deep in thought, to the main road, where did not have to wait long for a taxi. He was soon home at their combined home and Machinations company offices, Them being the Company Officers. He and his two ladies – he was careful not to call them wives while on Earth, with its different marriage laws - were also trying to run a personal business venture from the same location, supplying the settlers at the new Colony with essentials such as furniture. He was pensive all the way back.
His spouse Gail was waiting for him. "Welcome home, darling. How did it go, Sye?"
He considered his reply. "I would say there were good points and bad points, dearest." Gail looked surprised and puzzled, waiting for clarification. He went on, "The young lady from the shop, name of Claire, was very helpful and extremely accommodating, but somewhat restricted for time. There was a cleaner there, whom I did not see, only heard her voice. The stock of furniture was, shall I say, surprising."
"Oh? In what way, surprising?"
"In its entirety, what was there was not the range of stock that I was expecting to find. To explain that, I have to describe what the old lady told me over the phone. She was very proud of being an old established business catering to the "better" class of person in society. She was dead against flat pack furniture and modern furnishings that were not what she would call "quality" furniture. In other words, I expected primarily hand-made pieces with minimal factory manufacturing input."
"Right, I get you. Old fashioned and proud to be so. Sturdy bespoke items. That is what we are looking for, is it not?"
"That's it. Well, the warehouse I was shown was larger than I expected, and had a very wide range of furniture, INCLUDING modern pieces and even a section with flat packs stored in a large pile. That did not make sense to me, so I am suspicious."
"So what do you think is going on?"
"Two possibilities: One, that Claire was surreptitiously changing the stock, in the hopes of getting control and selling modern stuff if Granny kicked the bucket – whiuch is a possibility. That girl is smart in her own way. Possibility two is that what she showed me was NOT the warehouse for the store, but another warehouse, intended to impress me and get a higher valuation. She was not to know that YOU would be doing the actual valuation, my clever girl."
"So she is either trying to con her grandmother, salting new stuff away in the interim; or trying to con US. Which is it, in your opinion, Sye? You may not be an expert on furniture, but you are excellent at judging women. After all, look at who you married!"
"That was not me choosing you and Brenda; it was you and Brenda choosing ME! However, it worked out wonderfully well, I agree. Our lovely children are proof positive, not to mention what an impact you have made on the business.
However, getting back to the furniture, I am not certain, but my feeling is that both possibilities are equally valid assumptions, based on what we know at present. The business accounts may be bad because Claire is spending a lot of the income on this newer, cheaper, material without her grandmother's knowledge. On the other hand, the true stock of good quality stuff may be very low and thus worth much less, and Claire was trying to hide this fact until a deal was done and a contract signed."
"My dear husband, you are getting sly for the ways of business. You have learned a lot from me over the past couple of years. Brenda would be quite proud of your developing business acumen, if she were here. I know I am."
"I acknowledge your expertise, darling, and if some of it is rubbing off on me, that is all to the good. I still feel a bit bad at leaving Brenda in the Colony with the children, even though she has a nanny to help."
"Brenda will cope fine, darling. She knows one end of a baby from the other: insert breast milk in one end, remove poo and wee at the other; then keep them comfy and happy. The real nuisance is with me having to express my milk, or I get uncomfortable, but my presence here was essential. For example, you still have a few tricks to pick up from me. My own sleekit ways, for a start. Let me ring the old lady tomorrow morning. Tonight I might let you suck some of my breast milk as a treat, if you are nice and make the tea."
Alexander - more usually known by the familiar form of his name, Sye – was intrigued at his wife's statement about sleekit ways. He would wait and see. Sucking his wife's swollen teats did appeal, though. Her milk tasted nice.
The phone rang in the furniture shop next morning. "Hello? Tompkins Quality Furnishings -- Furniture for the Discerning. Can I help you?"
"May I speak to Mrs. Blenkinsop?"
"Who shall I say is calling?"
"Gail Ritchie, of Lownie and Co."
"I am putting you through now."
"Hello, Mrs. Blenkinsop. I work as a personal assistant to Mr. Lownie, who visited your warehouse last night. Being a typical man, he managed to lose the address of the warehouse, so can you give it to me again, please?"
Mrs Blenkinsop sounded surprised, "My dear, even if he forgot the address, he ought to be able to find it again: it is on the other side of this block, at number 7."
"Ah, I see. He went by taxi and just handed over the slip of paper with the address. That's why he would not know where it is; and of course, he forgot to get the paper back. Naturally, it would be something simple they get wrong, wouldn't it? What would these men do without us, Mrs. Blenkinsop?" Gail laughed, and Mrs. Blenkinsop joined in.
She remarked, "Quite right, my dear. My late husband had to be looked after all the time. His memory was affected by his war wounds, you know, and that didn't help. My grandfather was even worse: quite doddery eventually. What did Mr. Lownie think of our stock?"
"Confidentially, I think he was impressed by the conditions of storage, Mrs. B., but I am not supposed to say things like that! I have no idea about the quality aspect, as it was just a quick run-through"
"I am pleased to hear it, young lady. We have always maintained high quality stock, and our warehouse is well maintained to ensure that quality level."
"Anyway, it was lovely to speak to you, Mrs B. Thanks ever so, for your help. 'Bye for now."
Gail rang off and looked triumphantly at her husband. "There you are. The firm's warehouse is on the other side of the block, at number 7. That is NOT the place you were taken to, was it?"
"Certainly not! That Claire person tried to con me!"
"Well, she didn't succeed, did she, darling?"
Sye was numbed by the whole wasted exercise. "Where do we go from here, Gail? I don't think I am perhaps the right person to proceed with this business exploration."
Gail tapped her teeth with her pen as she thought. "Give me a minute or two, Sye."
She thought, and then declared, "Right. I shall pay a visit. First of all, I phone Claire, as Mrs. Lownie, and demand to see inside the warehouse, once she gets the key from Mrs. Blenkinsop. I shall take it from there, depending on what Claire tries to do or say. We have time to get that done today. You, my dear man, will take yourself in the car to the warehouse door, and wait there."
The phone rang in the shop, and Claire answered. "Hello. Tompkins Quality Furnishings -- Furniture for the Discerning. Can I help you?"
"This is Mrs. Lownie. I presume you are Claire. My husband was with you yesterday. I wish to have my own look at the shop's stock, so that I can put a valuation on it. This will be a combination of what you have on display in the shop, plus what is in storage. As I need to see the furniture in daylight, I shall be there in an hour. Get the key from Mrs. Blenkinsop. Either have an assistant to take over from you, or shut the shop temporarily. I don't expect you will lose much trade. Goodbye."
Gail arrived in her own business car, and parked outside the door. The fact that she could do this pointed out the lack of trade at the shop and the general lack of passing trade. She walked in the door, strode confidently to the sales counter, and announced herself. "I am Mrs. Lownie, here to see Claire."
The girl at the counter admitted to being Claire. "How do you do, Mrs. Lownie? I have the key, but do you want to look round the shop first of all?"
"Yes, I might as well. That way, I can compare what you have on display, to what is in storage." This statement made the girl blanche, but she recovered.
Gail allowed Claire to escort her round the premises, and as Claire pointed out the better pieces, Gail checked the prices being asked. Before they were halfway round, she thought fit to comment, "Your prices are too high, if you want to sell these pieces, Claire. You have far too high a profit margin on each piece. Some of this less good stuff would shift easily, if you halved the asking prices, and you would still be making a profit, by my reckoning."
Claire spluttered, coming up with her best excuse:
"Granny sets the prices, so I have to go with that."
"I see. So Granny controls how the business operates, does she?"
"Hmm. Yes. She does. She is no fool, is Granny."
"Right, so we can go round to the warehouse, now. Shall we go?"
"Have you got a car with you?"
"Yes, but we shouldn't need it when we can simply walk round to the store. It is in the next street back, isn't it?"
Claire's jaw dropped, and she rapidly worked out what she could say. "Oh, yes. The store with the old stuff, you mean?"
"Claire, I mean the ONLY warehouse the business has. Correct me if I am wrong in that. Now, shall we get on with it?"
Shocked into silence, Claire picked up the key of the store, and signalled her younger assistant, not much more than a schoolgirl, to the counter. The girl reluctantly closed down her phone, which seemed to absorb all her attention, and came over, the phone still tightly clasped in her hand.
Claire commanded, "Joan, we shall be at the warehouse for a little while. I am not sure how long. Phone me on my mobile if there is any need for my presence."
They walked silently side by side along from the shop front, then round the corner into a side lane, and turned again at the end, onto the next street. Claire slightly led the way, glancing at Gail occasionally. Gail decided to put the boot in. "Number seven, I think, Claire, or so Mrs Blenkinsop says."
Shocked again by this knowledge, Claire gulped, and responded submissively, "Yes, ma'am."
They came to the door, and standing in front of it was Sye, who greeted the pair of them, "Hello, Claire. Hi, darling. I haven't been waiting very long."
Claire was flustered again, feeling guilty at her former subterfuge, now exposed. She grabbed the key and unlocked the small door set within the larger industrial door, which was labelled, "TOMPKINS". Inside, the interior space was sparsely lit by daylight streaming through the skylight windows and a few other windows in a south-facing side wall. She entered and went to the switchboard to switch on the warehouse lights.
This showed that the warehouse was much smaller than the one Sye had seen the day before. It also had a more reduced collection of furniture stored within; nowhere stacked more than two layers high.
Nearest the door was bedroom furniture, mainly bedside tables, tall wardrobes, and chests of drawers. In another area were a range of dining room items – beautifully polished tables, upholstered dining chairs, sideboards, elegant wine cabinets and storage racks. Then there were desks and writing tables, games tables, easy chairs and sofas, plus dark heavy solid bookcases intended for a gentleman's library. There was more, but it all harked back to forty or fifty years ago, when much of it had probably been obtained for stock.
Walking around, Gail remarked, "This was great furniture in an age of elegance, large rooms and high ceilings. Most of these wardrobes would never fit into a modern house. How many of these wardrobes has the shop sold in the last five years, Claire? None, is my guess. And look at these beds near the back of the warehouse: carved ends, cast iron frames, and thick springs between. There is almost no market for these except for people restoring very old buildings and needing furniture with a contemporary look in an old house; few indeed. These mattresses leaning against the back wall; they are thick with dust on top of the plastic protection, showing they have been there for years.
Claire, I have to tell you – and I think you already know it – this collection of old-style furniture is difficult to sell, so I wouldn't expect to put a high value on it. I would agree that your best pieces are already on display in the shop, but with its limited space, even with two floors, that's not much."
Claire was almost in tears at Gail's assessment, but it was obvious that she agreed with this assessment. "So what do you think this lot is worth?"
"As a job lot? Around ten grand at most. It would cost me many hundreds of pounds just to transport them to our own warehousing. Trying to sell them would mean expensive advertising in specialist magazines to reach the people with money and large houses. We would have to market them very carefully, which takes time, and time means money when your stock is just sitting unsold.
For the display stock, another five thousand because of the higher quality. They say quality sells, but persuading people to buy quality is extremely difficult these days. We could try marketing them as unique, handcrafted pieces, and again that will cost in advertising and shipping to the customer, perhaps in the USA. Or we would have to identify another market, probably one with less cash to spend, so low prices from them.
No, Claire, I have to be hardheaded about this collection. Fifteen thousand is my limit, unless Sye has any better idea. Sye?"