THURSDAY: Page Forty-two

BY LARRY FLEWIN

Copyright is held by the author.

THERE WERE A LOT of people at the funeral. Albert would have liked that. He always was a people person, blessed with a knowing look and winning smile that won over everyone he met. As a personal financial advisor, his reputation was everything but that never seemed to be a problem for him. The clients I met always said the same thing; you always got the feeling that Albert was okay, that everything was all right.

I don’t suppose you ever really appreciate how many people you know, or know you, until something like this happens. As the widow, I had the front pew but there was such a large crowd of well-wishers and supporters in front of it that poor Albert was actually late for his own funeral. Ironic when you consider how hard he worked to make sure everyone else was well taken care of at theirs.

Mutual friends and acquaintances, business associates, golfing buddies, and so on all took a moment before the service to shake my hand, peck my cheek, and tell me how sorry they were. To tell the truth it was a little overwhelming, mainly because I was nervous as hell.

I liked my husband like no other but he ran a financial planning business. Not licensed, not registered and I’m not even sure he was either. I asked but he would never confirm or deny. Not that it ever really mattered. I was an officer of the company, he insisted on that, but my role was that of dutiful wife and hostess, ever on call to host an intimate gathering of some of his wealthier clients, organize a client event to introduce him to new ones, and to make sure that every client birthday, anniversary, wedding and death was personalized.

That’s why my hands were shaking so badly. Right after his death was announced I became the head of the company. His will had been short and to the point, much like he had been in life. She gets everything is essentially what he wrote although it took 10 pages to spell it all out.

Clients, family, and friends bombarded me with questions about what they should do now and I had absolutely no idea. You read about this in the papers but you never figure it will happen to you. When it does, you spend a week throwing up and then abide by your lawyer’s advice to call in an accountant and have him go over the books.

Not in the 20 or so years that Albert had run the business had he even mentioned the word audit let alone actually put himself through one. Didn’t need to he would say, I know what I’m doing and so do they. They trust me, you trust me, hell even I trust me so don’t worry about it, just let it ride and it’ll be okay, you’ll see.

Nervous? Yeah I guess. I knew all the stories, read all the articles. I didn’t want to be one of those women who learns her god-for-a-husband was cooking the books or robbing everybody blind. I had my whole life tied up in this thing, friends, family, social life, everything and I really didn’t know what was going on. I cried real tears at the funeral but deep down inside there was that nagging doubt.

I kept saying to myself things couldn’t be this good. No really, they couldn’t. With everything else around us going to hell or going to jail, how could we be the lucky ones sailing through it all untouched. I was just a Pysch major fresh out college and married to some guy I had been paired up with on a blind date. Not terribly romantic and I don’t suppose we ever really were in love. We somehow came together just at the right time and in the right place for everything to go our way. Luck, not love.

Two weeks into the audit, the accountant proclaimed that everything appeared to be on the up-and-up. Albert’s in-trust accounts were up to snuff, the banks were happy with his method of operating, and all his investments were fully capitalized. I asked what that last one meant. Oh, he said, that means all the money your husband took in for investing purposes actually was invested somewhere, and there is a paper trail to prove it. Everyone’s money appeared to be safe. And secure.

Which meant I was. Safe, secure, and very rich. I didn’t know beans about the business but I figured my accountant could take over once the audit was done and keep things running. I had no intention of getting involved in any of that. It was way over my head in terms of complexity, and not anywhere close to my own interests.

Those were very social and very high profile. Early on dear Albert’s money had given me an in to any number of charitable organizations and boards. Time and money spent with the powerful and the influential paid their own dividends he would say, just so long as you were careful with them. And like any good investment, the rewards would grow exponentially. Come the day you would gain the respect that they had earned you. That day was a whole lot closer now. I was just waiting for the accountant’s final report before I started looking at real estate.

That was not long in coming. Fifty pages of numbers, charts, and graphs that made me dizzy just looking at it. The bottom line was very simple. My Albert, my honest-as-the-day-is-long, trust-me-it’s-okay, I’m-on-it Albert had run a clean ship. His clients were happy, my friends and family were happy, I was happy. Doubt was gone.

“Very commendable,” said the accountant. “With all that’s happened in the financial world these past few years it’s refreshing to come across someone with his integrity intact.” We were in my living room, sharing white wine in quiet celebration. Hampton was his name. Sandy Hampton, an old high school friend of mine. We had bumped into each other over the years at a number of charitable events.

“I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect. You read about private financial companies like this and all too often, it’s a complete shambles. This one however was almost perfect.”

“Thank you. It’s good to hear that coming from you. I have to say I never really knew what Albert was doing; it was all Greek to me. ‘Trust me sweetheart,’ he would say. ‘It’s okay I know what I’m doing.’ And by the sounds of it he really did.”

“You seem surprised.”

“No not really, just relieved is all. It’s good to know he left things in such good shape. I can relax now.”

“Yes, Albert was remarkably generous. There are some payments to people in here going back years in some cases. I don’t know what they are for exactly but …”

“Really? Are you sure? I mean I don’t want to sound rude…”

“Oh no no. I wasn’t sure myself so I condensed them all for you. Umm, right here, page 42. I thought it might be easier for you to decide how to proceed.”

“Proceed?”

“You know, continue the payments maybe? Or not, your choice.”

“Oh yeah, right, about those. I’ll look them over and let you know.”

“Sounds good to me. Cheers!”

“Cheers!”

Page 42 did indeed have a number of payments going to individuals. Most I recognized, like his parents, his sister and her lowlife beater of a husband. Some were to cash, which I sort of expected, he was always buying a round somewhere or covering the tip at dinner. One I didn’t recognize, the one Sandy had mentioned going back almost to the time when Albert started his business. It was to a J. Slidell.

I don’t know what made me do it, I mean I wasn’t really impulsive by nature. Was it something about the name or maybe it was the unknowing of it but it nagged mentally at me for several days. I kept going back to the report to read over page 42 and always stopped when I came to that name.

Sandy offered to track down who it was for me but I wanted to do this I said. There was just something about those entries that bothered me, a feeling, an instinct maybe, but something. And when Bridge Club was cancelled the next day, I took it as a sign that I should call J. Slidell and solve the mystery.

The voice that answered the phone was female, deep-toned, and guttural. The conversation never got past hello before she was pausing to yell at some noisy kids in the background.

“Look you two, when I say shut up I mean shut the hell up! I’m on the phone goddamn it and then I gotta go to work! Now go do your homework or something alright? Sorry about that you were saying?”

“I was just calling…”

“Look I told you before you’re old enough now you gotta baby-sit! It’s only for another year and then she’ll be old enough to sit on her own! No the guys can’t come over…”

I hung up the phone.

J. Slidell was Jennifer, Jennifer Williams, a  name I hadn’t thought about in years. She was Albert’s first girl Friday when he started the business. They put in a lot of time together building the business, and even went on the odd road trip together. I didn’t know where the Slidell part came from but the voice I could not mistake. A voice that vanished one day. A new job said Albert. They were offering her more than he could and they needed her to start right away so I did the right thing and let her go okay?

At the time, it was okay but right about now my heart was in my stomach and I was frozen to the spot. All I could think of was I had just phoned my worst fear and it had come true. Could it be possible that Albert and she…that those two…  I threw up all over the desk.

I told no one of course, I couldn’t face the inevitable sympathy and the questions. How could I not know, didn’t I see any signs, oh you poor thing he just used you….The irony would have just too much to bear. Me whining about how perfect life was and how bored I was with it only to find I was just like the rest of them. There would be no mercy.

I couldn’t bring myself to fault Albert. Yes he had probably made a mistake and while I didn’t understand it I wasn’t about to give up on him. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this was somehow all her fault. She took advantage and he being the nice guy didn’t have it in him to cut her loose. All these years and all those payments just to keep things quiet. Keep his reputation clean.

I wasn’t about to have that dragged through the society columns and the courts, not after all I had been through. To get this far only to lose it all over some cheap affair was too awful to contemplate. Yes, I still cared, enough to hold him blameless and try to right the wrong. That’s what he would have wanted right I asked myself? I mean he was caught in a situation not of his doing and all he could think of was me and how this might hurt me if I ever found out.

I said as much to Sandy when I called him.

“Yeah no offense but I thought as much too,” he said. “I took the liberty of looking into J. Slidell for you, and yes, she is indeed the Jennifer of old. Divorced with two kids and no support, hubby’s doing time for assault and robbery. No idea who the kids belong to but given their ages, it is possible Albert…… ”

“But they’re really not his are they?”

“No way to tell without doing paternity tests and god knows what else. All very legal and time consuming, and all very public.” He paused. “Are you really sure you want to go this route?”

“I’m not sure what I should do. That’s why I need to see you.”

“No problem. I’ll clear my schedule tomorrow afternoon so we can take our time and figure this thing out.”

“Thank you. I feel much better already.”

The next afternoon I arrived at Sandy’s office full of apprehension. What would this cost, what would that tramp say or do? The door opened and I was ushered in. A quiet word with his secretary and we would be undisturbed for the afternoon.

“So?” I asked, settling comfortably into an easy chair beside the bar.

“So, I made a few calls, called in a couple of favours,” he said smiling gently. “Got a PI friend of mine looking into Ms. Slidell and the kids a little deeper.”

“Really? You….you can actually do that?”

“Oh yes absolutely. Well I can’t but my friend can. He specializes in Information Retrieval as he calls it. If Slidell won’t come to us, and she probably wouldn’t even if we did ask her, then we have to go to her, sort of. Do a little digging, ask a few quiet questions, and with any luck we should have our answer by the end of the week.”

“God I hope so. This is all so stressful. I’m sure I haven’t slept more than an hour for the last couple of nights.”

“Not to worry, it’ll all be over soon I’m sure. Now, wouldn’t you be more comfortable on the couch. I’m always napping on the thing. Does wonders for your energy level.”

“Thanks. I wouldn’t mind trying that.”

A week later and I was back in his office, more rested than I can remember and ready for anything. The call came while I was in the shower but I was so anxious I stepped out of it the moment Sandy called me. I felt like a shameless hussy not being fully dressed when I raced into the office but I really really needed to know.

He lifted two glasses of my favourite white wine from the bar, gave me one, and saluted me with the other.

“What’s all this?” I asked.

He took a sip before picking up a piece of paper from his desk. He waved it under my nose, smiling broadly. “One cheque to sign one problem solved. My man came back with the good news not 20 minutes ago. He’s got copies of the blood tests done on the kids when they were born, plus copies of the birth certificates, none of which involves dear old Albert. So, a quick call to Jenny-poo and she took the offer and it’s all done. I’ll courier it over to her this afternoon.”

I set my glass down on the bar, stepped forward, and wrapped him in a tight embrace and a very deep and loving kiss.

“Oh god darling,” I moaned. “It’s been so long but it’s finally over. Thank you for being so patient.”

“No Problem. Just so long as I’m properly rewarded.”

“Haven’t you been already?” I smirked.

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