Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 1

The company Gerard Harrington built was a solid business, built on integrity and honesty. The reputation of Harrington Mercantile Company was sound, and stood for superior quality, and fair prices. The clientele trusted Gerard to deliver what he promised, and they knew they could depend on his generosity to extend credit if they needed it. Because of this, it was seldom that Gerard had to pursue payment forcefully. More likely than not, Gerard would write off the debt, rather than hound a man he knew was in trouble and could not pay.

Gerard’s employees knew him to be fair, kind, and understanding. In return, they gave him their loyalty. But, a rat can turn up in even the cleanest kitchen, and such was the case when one Jacob Tolabert came along.

Gerard hired Mr. Tolabert as bookkeeper at the recommendation of a business associate. Tolabert had an uncanny way of ingratiating himself to Gerard, and before long, he had convinced Gerard to make him a partner in the business. It was, with only a little reservation, that Gerard finally consented to make him a partner in a small way.

Changes began slowly and quietly. At first, they seemed to be unimportant. However, as time passed, Tolabert began to take more and more liberty in the ordering and distribution of goods, convincing Gerard that he was only trying to relieve him of his more burdensome tasks, thereby easing some of his stress, and allowing him more freedom. Gerard hardly noticed when the good and loyal men, who had worked for him for years left, and men who were neither quietly replaced them. Over the course of only a few years, the quality goods Harrington’s had always provided were replaced with things of lesser quality, and sold at the same prices. Yet, the profits, instead of increasing, declined.

The explanation Tolabert offered for the decline seemed plausible, and Gerard wanted to believe it. They had done a brisk business with the American colonies until recently. With the troubles over there, the British goods were in less demand than they had been. Surely, after they settled that little problem, the demand would increase again, and things would pick up.

On Mike’s fifteenth birthday, a small group of family and friends had gathered for a celebration. Winter had finally released its grip on the city, and the day was warm enough to have tea served in the garden, where the colorful spring flowers were in bloom. Mike and his young friends gathered at the table, filling their plates for a third time while Gerard stood a few steps away talking with some business constituents. When he heard his father mention his name, Mike’s ears perked up.

“I intend to take Michael into the company with me,” Gerard said. “He’s old enough now to start learning the business. It’ll be good for him to have something more to do with his time than just his studies, and wasting time with his friends.” The other men heartily voiced their agreement and approval.

Mike felt pleased by his father’s confidence in him, but he was not sure he was ready to give up his youth and freedom just yet.

“Bad luck, Harrington,” said one of his pals.

“Looks like you’re in for it,” said another. Mike set his plate down on the table, his appetite suddenly evaporating.

Over the next weeks, Mike learned the operation of the mercantile business, learning first things first. He put in the same long, hard days in the warehouse as the other employees. He loaded and unloaded the drays and wagons, moved crates and other stock around in the warehouse, and counted inventory. He learned the required tasks quickly, and after the first few days of aching muscles and unfamiliar weariness, his body began to adjust to the demands, by developing muscles in new places.

The first thing he learned was that he did not like Jacob Tolabert. The man was always polite and business like when Gerard was around, but the minute Gerard was out of sight, he demeanor changed. He did not waste his smarmy grin, and mocking politeness on Mike.

One beautiful spring day when the air was warm and clear, Gerard sent Mike into the warehouse to count the bottles of a large shipment of wine that had just arrived from France. Mike longed to be outside with his friends instead of inside the musty warehouse. When he went to the back of the building with his tally sheet, the lure of an open window was stronger than the call of duty. He stepped behind the stack of crates and leaned out of the window, breathing deeply of the warm spring air. He watched the puffy clouds floating slowly by above the roof of the next building that blocked the view of everything else, and was lost in a daydream when he heard hushed voices from the other side of the stacked crates.

There would be a reprimand if they found him dallying around instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. Quickly he stepped back and pressed himself against the stack of crates, and stood still. Hopefully, they would be gone soon, none the wiser.

“When I hired you, you said you could do the job right.” Tolabert’s voice was condescending and scolding.

“Aye, and we did. The likes of you ain’t gonna tell me how to do my job.”

“I pay you; I will tell you what to do,” he hissed.

Mike’s curiosity got the better of him, and he stole a peek around the edge of the crate. The big man was dressed like a laborer, and unshaven with a day or two worth of a scruffy beard.

“Well, perhaps you’d like to take care of it yerself,” he said as he crossed his arms over his big chest and glared at Tolabert.

“That’s why I hired you two in the first place. But, I need men I can trust to do what I say. If you cannot do that simple thing, then I will find someone else smart enough to do it.” He tucked something into his waistcoat pocket, and leveled cold eyes on the man.

“Now—now just a minute. You promised to pay us to haul them crates, and we did it. We took ’em where you said—” piped in the shorter, weasel like little man.

“Yes, but you did not do it as I told you. You moved them in broad daylight! Suppose Harrington had seen you? What could we have done? You would be in it as deep as me, and probably received the worst of it, too,” snarled Tolabert.

“And, what if he did see?” demanded the short man. “He’d just think we was moving the stuff for one of his customers.”

The big man put his fists on his hips, and took a firm stance in front of Tolabert. “You wouldn’t be thinking of not paying us for the work we done for you, would you?” He stepped closer, and poked his thick finger into Tolabert’s chest a couple of times. “Cause we sure would hate to have to take a piece of your hide to collect our payment.”

Tolabert held his gaze, but Mike saw a slight tremble in his fingers as he reached into his waistcoat pocket, removed the coins he had placed there a moment earlier, and tossed them to the floor.

“There. This is the last of it. I’ll think long and hard before I hire the two of you for anything again.” He turned on his heel and walked out quickly.

The two men snatched up the coins from the floor, and examined them closely before pocketing each his share. The larger man watched Tolabert with a smirk.

“He’ll send for us again. He can’t afford to let no more in on his little business than’s already in. You’ll see.” The shorter man nodded with a knowing grin, as they both left the warehouse.

Mike stood frozen in disbelief. Jacob Tolabert had hired these men to do something suspicious. It sounded like they were moving something they were not supposed to move. Else, why would they be afraid Father would notice? What little business were they all in together? This could not be good. He should tell his father. But, tell him what? That he had overheard a dubious conversation between Jacob Tolabert and a couple of laborers? Tolabert would deny any wrongdoing, and would probably have a plausible explanation. He decided he would have to learn more before he told Father about this.

From that time, Mike watched Tolabert closely. He began to notice things he had not noticed before. Tolabert spent a lot of time in the warehouse talking to a select few men. Mike could not remember when these men had come to work for Harrington’s.

In late summer, when his father decided to have him begin learning the workings of the office and the paperwork of the business, he found opportunities to compare the counts of the shipments with the records in the office.

A few times, he found what he was sure was a discrepancy in the count, but when he went to the warehouse, and counted the cargo again, it was the same as the records. Maybe he was chasing a wild hare. Maybe his dislike of the man was coloring his view. He wanted to be sure, though, and decided to make a test, and find out if he were right or wrong.

A new shipment of dishes had come in from Holland. Mike had been expecting it, and had looked up the orders, dunning notice and shipping records. He carefully copied down all the figures from the papers before replacing them all in the file. While the workers unloaded the shipment, he counted the crates, opening each one and checking for breakage. The shipment they received agreed with the figures he had written down from the records. He counted twice to be sure he had not made a mistake.

The next day, Jacob Tolabert finished his records, and entered all the information into the books. When Mike found a moment alone in the office, he compared what he had recorded earlier with what Tolabert had put into the book. The figures were off by two crates. Mike went over the figures again. Still two. Here could be the proof. His heart raced as he went directly to the warehouse where they had stacked the crates and counted them. There were two less than what he had written down. The inventory agreed with Tolabert’s paperwork. Mike knew he had counted correctly the first time. There were two crates missing. And, he thought he knew what had happened to them. If the records agreed with the inventory, how could he prove there were things missing?

It was getting late when Mike finished his work that day, but he was determined he would go to his father before they left for the day. He had to tell Father or burst, and he did not care anymore whether or not his story was believable. Father could do what he would with the information.

As he came from the warehouse toward the office, he heard angry, raised voices coming from within. One of the voices belonged to his father. He knew that angry tone even through the closed door.

As Mike reached for the doorknob, the door burst open, and Jacob Tolabert stomped past him, his face red and contorted in wrath. Mike stared open mouthed at him as he stomped deliberately out of the building, slamming the door behind him. Stepping into the office, Mike found his father livid, and pacing back and forth between the two desks. He had never seen Gerard so angry.

“Father?” Mike ventured timidly.

Gerard stopped his pacing. When he saw Mike, he took a long deep breath, and let it out slowly. The anger turned to sorrow as he wearily sat down at his desk.

“Michael, you’re ready to go home?”

“I need to talk to you. I’ve been doing some checking, and I think I’ve found something you need to know about.” He fingered his papers as he stood before his father, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“Michael, I just can’t think about anything else just now. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be in a better mind to look at it.” He pulled out his watch and opened it. The fob made by childish hands dangled between his fingers. Mike remembered the year he had made the fob, and presented it to Gerard for his birthday. Gerard had acted so pleased, and attached it to his watch immediately. He had never removed it.

“We best get along home. Your mother will think I’ve forgotten we’re to go to the Byron’s dinner party tonight.”

Mike respected his father’s wishes. Perhaps, after Gerard had dressed for the dinner party and had his brandy, he would be more inclined to listen. But, Gerard’s mood did not alter until he saw Sarah Harrington standing in the doorway of the drawing room, dressed in her party gown. The frustrated, haggard look he had worn home from the office, melted into obvious love and appreciation for the beautiful woman before him. Mike would remember his mother in that emerald green, satin gown whenever he thought of her in years to come.

Gerard took her gloved hand, and kissed her fingers where they folded over his hand. “You will out shine the hostess this evening, my dear.”

She smiled warmly into his eyes, and took his extended arm. “You are sweet to say so, but we are still going.”

“I would follow you anywhere, my love.” He kissed her cheek, and released her to go to the children.

“You both go to bed on time,” she said, hugging Janny. “Don’t wait up for us. It may be late when we come back.” She kissed Janny, and smoothed her curls back from her forehead, then kissed Mike’s cheek and ran her fingers across the creases in his brow. “You’re working too hard. You need to get more rest.”

“I will, Mother.”

Mike stayed in the drawing room after Janny went to bed. He sat in the big leather chair by the fire, and waited. He had to tell his father what he had learned about Jacob Tolabert, and tomorrow would not do. Surely, after a relaxing evening with friends and good food, Gerard would be ready to hear what he had to say.

Hours later Higgins, the butler, wakened him by gently touching his shoulder.

“Master Harrington? There’s a constable here to see you.”

Mike focused his sleepy eyes on Higgins standing before him in his nightshirt and dressing gown. “What? What did you say?” he yawned groggily.

“A constable to see you, sir.”

“To see me? Are you sure? What time is it?”

“It is very late, sir. Shall I show him in?”

“Yes, of course.” Mike stood up and saw the man standing in the doorway of the room, turning his hat in his hands, looking ill at ease and apologetic.

“Are you Master Harrington?”

Mike rubbed his eyes with the flat of his hands, and then rolled them behind his closed lids to remove the lingering sleep.

“Yes, I am. My father is out for the evening, though. He should be back soon if you care to wait—”

“No, sir, it’s you I come to speak to.”

“Why me?” Mike was beginning to get uneasy.

“Well, sir, it’s about your parents—”

“What about my parents? Has something happened?”

“Yes, sir. Something has happened. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but … well … they’ve been killed.” The man’s voice was kind, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot, as he stood fingering his hat brim.

Mike thought his heart had stopped beating. He seemed unable to breathe, and his knees felt like they had suddenly turned to jelly. The constable reached out and took his arm, easing him back into the chair. Thousands of questions raced through his mind, but none seemed to be coming out of his lips. Killed? That was impossible. He must have heard wrong. They were just here a few hours ago, leaving for a dinner party.

Finally, he heard his own voice, thin and weak.

“No—no, you must be mistaken—”

“ ’Fraid not, sir,” he said as he hovered close by, concerned by Mike’s sudden weakness. “There’s a gentleman identified ’em. Said he’d been at the same party with ’em. He said they was Sarah and Gerard Harrington of this address. He also said there was folks here as should be told. So, they sent me along to see you.”

“But—how, what …?”

“Well, it seems they was robbed on their way home—there was no money, or jewelry on either of them. They was both shot—the hack driver, too. Near as we can figure, they must a decided to give the robbers a fight, so they shot ’em.”

“That’s ridiculous. My father had nothing that he would risk his life to protect … except Mother. Was she—I mean did they—”

“Oh! No sir, no. There wasn’t nothing like that done to the lady. It just appears to be a robbery.” Mike closed his eyes as if to shut out the whole thing, shaking his head. “Well, sir, if you got no more questions, I need to get back on duty.”

Mike nodded. He was too stunned to remember manners. What now? He was unprepared for what he now faced. And, Janny. How would he tell her? He rested his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. He could not face this. It was too hard.

As if in answer to a wish, Father John was kneeling beside him. “Michael! Higgins sent for me. He told me what has happened. How are you?”

Mike raised watery eyes to meet his. “They can’t be gone.”

The minister took his hands in his. “Michael, I am here for you and Janny. Has she been told?”

Mike bowed his head, and allowed the tears to burn their way down his cheeks. “No. I couldn’t wake her to tell her this. What am I going to say? How can I tell her that her mother and father are dead?”

“There is no easy way, but it has to be done. She has to know. I’ll tell her if you like.” Mike nodded. “I sent someone for the bodies, and I’ll take care of everything else. You don’t need to worry about anything now.”

Mike drew his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and sat in the big chair, staring into the fire until it died in the early morning light.

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