Authors: Maeve Binchy
“Is Dad all right?”
“Of course he's not all right, Ella. I have the doctor here with him. He's ruined.”
“Tell me, tell me, what did he lose?”
“Oh, Ella, everything. But it's not what
lost that matters, it's what the firm lost. What his clients lost. He may have to go to jail.”
That was when Ella fainted.
Mrs. Brady hadn't hung up. That was something. At least Brenda could keep her there for long enough to get her address. She held Ella's head downward so that more blood would flow toward the brain.
“I have to get home to them,” Ella said over and over.
“You will, don't worry.”
“Your restaurantâwon't you be needed downstairs?”
,” Brenda insisted.
Then she summoned Patrick's younger brother, Blouse. “You know where Tara Road is?”
“I do. I often deliver vegetables to Colms restaurant if he's short.”
“In about fifteen minutes, when she's up to it, drive her there, will you, Blouse?”
“Where are the car keys?” he asked.
Brenda turned out the contents of Ella's handbag. The keys were all on one ring. It had a cherub angel on it.
“Angel,” said Ella weakly.
“Yes, we have the keys.” Brenda crammed everything back into the handbag, pausing only a fraction of a second to glance at a picture of Don Richardson smiling at the girl who had loved him. Ella's eyes were open and she was watching. Otherwise, Brenda would have torn it into a dozen pieces.
Ella gave Blouse directions to her parents' house. When they arrived, Ella's mother ran to the car. “I suppose you're one of his friends,” she said when Blouse helped Ella from the car.
“I'm not really anyone's friend, Madam. I'm Brenda's brother-in-law. She asked me to drive this lady home.”
“From where, exactly?”
“From Quentins restaurant,” he said proudly.
“Leave him, Mam. He's got nothing to do with anything.”
“What do we know what has to do with anything?” Her mother looked as if somebody had given her a beating.
“In the sitting room. He won't go to bed. He won't take any sedation. He says he has to be alert if the office rings him.”
“And have they rung him?”
“Not since lunchtime. Not since we learned that Don
has left the country. There's no point in anyone ringing anyone now, Ella. It's all gone. All gone.”
“I can't tell you how sorry I am,” she said.
“Well, I'll be off now, then,” Blouse Brennan said.
“Thank you very much, and will you thank your sister?”
“Sister-in-law,” he corrected.
“Yes, well, say I'm very grateful.”
“It's nothing,” he said.
“How will you get back?” Ella's mother realized that he had left the car keys on the table.
“Which end of Tara Road is shorter to the bus?” he asked cheerfully. He was so unconcerned, he lived in a world where you drove people home in their own cars and took a bus back to a kitchen or scullery or wherever he worked. A world where people weren't greedy and didn't win and lose huge sums of money over business deals. He would never know anyone who lied and lied and lied like Don Richardson had lied. Even to people who loved him. Particularly to people who loved him. But Ella was too tired to care anymore. All she wanted was to reassure her father that the world hadn't come to an end. She wanted to look him in the face and tell him that it would be all right. It was just that with every passing second, it seemed so unlikely that this was true.
He looked like an old man, a paper-thin old man whose skeleton was covered with a very fine parchment. When he smiled it was like a death head. “I didn't know, Dad. I didn't have any idea,” she said.
“It's not your fault, Ella.”
“It is. I introduced him to you. I made you think he was my friend. I thought he loved me, Dad. He told me last night that he loved me. You see, I was sure he did.”
She knelt beside him. Her mother watched from the door with tears on her face.
“Dad, I'm young and I'm strong, and if I have to work day and night to make sure that you and Mother are all
right, I will never take a day's holiday until I know I've done all that can be done.”
“Child, don't upset yourself.” His voice was very hesitant, as if he were having trouble breathing.
“I'm not a child, Dad, and I will be upset, very upset till the day I die that this should happen because I made such a stupid, stupid error of judgment. But you know, Dad, even at this late stage, there could be an explanation. Perhaps it was all his father-in-law's doing.”
“Please, Ella. Everyone trusts people when they love them,” her mother said.
Her mother? Instead of bawling her out, she actually seemed to understand.
“No, I couldn't be like ordinary people, normal people like you and Dad, who found someone decent to love. I had to find a criminal, someone who ruins people and steals their livelihood and their savings.”
“I don't mind losing the savings, Ella, that was just greed. I wanted to make a profit so that we could buy you a little house.”
“A what? But I don't want a little house.”
“But we knew you weren't ever going to come and live here, so we wanted you to have a small place with character, and what with property being so dear, you'd never get that on a teacher's salaryÂ .Â .Â .”
“Father, what did you lose? Tell me.”
“But I don't
about what we lost. It's the office. He had been so helpful, you know, always seemed to be in the know.”
“Yes, he was in the know, all right.”
“And those first bits of advice that I gave people went down so wellÂ .Â .Â . I took risks, Ella. I can't blame anyone but myselfÂ .Â .Â . it's just, it's justÂ .Â .Â .”
“Just what, Dad?”
“Just that two weeks ago, he said it would be easiest and quickest if I gave him the money direct to invest
from a few of my clients. I'd never done it before. You know the laws and rules there are about thatÂ .Â .Â . but Don made it all sound so normal somehow. He said he was going out to Spain. He could invest it there and then save time, cut a few corners. Why not? That's what he said, and you know I did thinkÂ .Â .Â . why not?”
“I know, Dad. Who are you telling?” She stroked his hand. But her mind was far, far away. It was in Spain. The bastard. He had conned her father out of money that he had spent in that hotel. Don had spent the money that he pretended to be investing for her father's clients in shoring up his love nest for himself, wife and kiddies. While the daughter of the victim lay in the hotel swimming pool, waiting for him. Was there anything in the whole history of faithless love as sick and pathetic?
“Dad, you won't really have to go to jail?”
“I will certainly have to go to court,” he said.
“But wasn't Don a legitimate adviser? You know, with a license and everythingÂ .Â .Â . surely
can't be held responsible.”
“All that would have worked if my clients were his clients, but they weren't. I only took his advice, his tips, his hints, as hearsay.”
“Dad, your boss, they knowÂ .Â .Â .”
“They know me for what I am, a weak, foolish old man,” he said, and then for the very first time she began to cry.
She would recover. She knew that sometime in the future she might get over it and over him. But her father never would. That's why Don could never be forgiven.
Everything passes, even scandalous stories like the disappearance of Ricky Rice and Don Richardson, and soon the front pages had other stories to tell. There was an official inquiry announced, of course, and people became much more cautious about investing anything
anywhere. There had been much speculation about whether the family was really in Spain or had gone farther afield. After all, there were extradition laws in Europe now. People could not hide in one member state from the law they had broken in another. Perhaps they were in Africa or South America.
Ella had been questioned by detectives. Did Mr. Richardson say anything about any plans to relocate in Spain when he and Ella had been on holiday there? Ella told them grimly that she knew of no such plans. The pain in her face seemed to convince them. She was as much a victim as many others had been.
But then the interest died down. In the media, if not for those whose hearts had been broken.
The man with the red face, who had put all the money in a retirement bungalow for his wife, didn't forget. Nor did the pale woman who thought she had made a wonderful investment and owned an apartment in the south of Spain. The friends of Brenda Brennan, who had saved money for a wedding party, decided to laugh and make the best of it. They were people of middle years. Maybe fate was telling them they would have been foolish to have had a big celebration. Possibly a plate of sandwiches would do them fine.
Tim Brady took early retirement from his firm and spent his days filling out forms and dossiers about how and why he had given advice based on the casual snippets of information he had heard from a man he hardly knew. Barbara Brady offered to take early retirement from her firm of lawyers, saying that she didn't want to embarrass them by staying on. Delicately, they managed to convince her that nobody knew who she was and it didn't matter anyway, and possibly theirs was a household that might need a little money coming in.
And Ella? Each day seemed to be forty-eight hours
long. And no day seemed different from any other day nor any night from the one that followed.
It was just that the nights were worse.
Sleep would vanish. She would get up and pace around the room, looking up at the shelf where she had hidden his briefcase and the laptop it contained. A hundred times she had wanted to take it to the Fraud Squad, say she had found it. They might be able to track down some of the money and rescue people like her father, like Brenda's friend Nora, whose wedding savings were gone, the man with the red face buying the villa, he thought, for a wife who had a bad chest, like the pale woman on the television interview who said she knew she owned the flat because Don had showed her a picture of it.
But she couldn't do it.
He had trusted her, he never left that briefcase behind him; she used to joke that it was chained to his arm. She had delayed him by kissing him when he was leaving her flat in a rush that day but he hadn't worried or panicked. He hadn't called her or gotten anyone else to. He knew she would keep it safe for him.
And in spite of all the evidence, she knew he would be coming back for her.
Anyway, it was all down to Ricky Rice, he ran the whole show. Everyone knew that, people just did his bidding. Indeed, the very fact that Don had left the computer with her was some kind of message. Why hadn't she thought of that before?
Of course he would just come walking back into her life to tell her that it had all been sorted. A love like theirs wasn't the ordinary kind of affair that people thought it was.
He was just sorting things out.
At night it seemed clear and certain. She would just wait for it to happen.
It was during the day that it seemed unlikely.
There was no message from Spain, no call on the cell phone, no text message. And then one day there was the request for a meeting by the Fraud Squad. Did Ella have anything pertinent to their inquiries? Like a list of files?
Ella looked the two men straight in the eye and said no, she had no files and no knowledge of anything that would help them.
“He didn't give you anything to look after for him, Madam? Any records, that sort of thing?”
She wasn't quite sure why she said no. Strictly speaking, it was true. He hadn't asked her to look after anything for him. But of course she was lying to them and she knew it. Why? she wondered. Why had she wrapped Don's laptop in a great amount of padding and put it deep in her suitcases of clothes that were on the way back to Tara Road? If they had a search warrant they would have found the little machine and she would have been in real trouble. But in a mad way she felt she owed it to him not to hand over something he had left in her care. And of course he knew she had it, so he might well get in touch with her about it.
It was a very unreal time. She would have been lost without her friends. Deirdre had been there day and night whenever she was needed. Sometimes they said nothing, they just listened to music. Sometimes they played gin rummy. Deirdre helped her to pack up all her things in the flat and move them back to Tara Road. Ella wanted to burn the sheets on the bed. Deirdre said this was no time for dramatic gestures; she would take them to the laundry and then give them to a charity shop.
It was Deirdre who explained to the landlord that Ella would not be in a position to pay any more rent, and could they cut the agreement short. Deirdre often made sure she was there in the evening, about
suppertime, so that the family would have to give the appearance of normality and sit down and have something to eat.