by John Morrison


71: Facing Charges

It's often said that you don't really appreciate money you don't earn, though you're unlikely to hear this sentiment from the good people at Roofe Leakes, Milltown's foremost estate agent. Having perfected the happy knack of generating the maximum amount of money for the minimum of effort - a process honed to perfection during the heady housing boom of the eighties - they came a bit of a cropper when prices fell. Indeed, when the country was languishing in recession, one of the few cheering aspects was watching estate agents going broke on a daily basis.

Trade, for those who survived the slump, seems to be on the up. The profession is busy cleaning up its act; these days even Pinocchio could land a job in the estate agency business, honing noncommittal prose for the sales brochures. But if estate agents are no longer allowed to lie - shamelessly, wantonly, from nine to five each day with maybe an hour off for lunch - then what do we need them for?

As Mr Smallholder walks out of Roof Leakes, he feels a tap on his shoulder. "I think you'd better come with me, sir", says PC Rasher, sole representative of Milltown's police force. Mr Smallholder looks him up and down in some bemusement; he's never seen a policeman in open-toed sandals before. "Not now, sonny", he says. "If you're selling tickets to the Policeman's Ball, just give my secretary a call".

It's the wrong thing to say. Before you can say 'offshore bank account', Mr Smallholder is being frog-marched into Milltown's compact police station and read his rights. Mr Smallholder interrupts PC Rasher's faltering recitation: "Hang on, laddie, the people I ran over were old . They'd all had a decent innings. Look, I'm a fair man: I'll take some tickets, for God's sake. As many as you've got. Will this be enough? And something for yourself... I'm late for a meeting".

It's the wrong thing to say. PC Rasher ignores the proffered wad of notes with as much dignity as he can muster. "You don't seem to realise, sir, that you are in a great deal of trouble. You won't be going anywhere for quite some time." Mr Smallholder slaps his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Yes, of course, I understand now. It's not a matter of money, is it? It's about honour ". He winks, rolls one trouser leg up to the knee and offers an awkward handshake.

It's the wrong thing to do. PC Rasher, rapidly running out of patience, produces a charge sheet and licks the end of his pencil. Sensing trouble, Mr Smallholder changes tack once again. "I'm very sorry, officer, I'm under a lot of pressure at work, you see. I'm a very, very busy and successful man. Sometimes I forget what I'm doing after I've had a few drinks".

It's the wrong thing to say. Mr Smallholder bites his lip in vexation; he can see his business lunch going the same way as his meeting. He's ushered into the toilet with a small flask to fill and re-emerges, a few minutes later, red-faced and rather breathless. "Well, I'm glad that's sorted out now", he beams. "I'm always happy to be of assistance to our splendid boys in blue. You all do such a marvellous job. But I really have to be off now".

It's the wrong thing to say. Two minutes later Mr Smallholder is sitting disconsolately in a tiny, spartan cell, minus his belt and shoe-laces. He feels aggrieved; that half-witted policeman never said anything about a urine sample? It was a mistake anyone could make, particularly an over-stressed financier with a lot on his mind and some vintage port sluicing around in his stomach.

From Mr Smallholder's diminutive semen sample the boys at the forensic lab discover not merely that he's twice over the legal limit for alcohol... but are also able to clear up a number of paternity suits that had been laying dormant in the files. With PC Rasher being short of time, Mr Smallholder has to write his own confession. It's a sobering moment.

Mrs Smallholder takes the news of her husband's arrest very hard. She maintains a lonely vigil back at their luxury farmhouse: reclined on a divan, eating continental chocolates and ordering useless items of frippery from the Shopping Channel. Who would begrudge her the small comfort, during this difficult time, of giving her credit cards some serious hammer?

In between dialling freephone numbers she thinks back, wistfully, to happier days. What was it about Mr Smallholder that had first attracted her? His rugged good looks? His untarnished credit rating. Or... yes, that was it: his thrilling disregard for financial probity. She recalls how he wooed her with expensive gifts and stock options, finally clinching the marriage deal with a watertight prenuptial agreement.

But their comfortable lifestyle seems to be unravelling at a startling rate. As she delves into the bottom of the chocolate box for the last nut cluster, Mrs Smallholder idly wonders how her husband would react to a quickie divorce. She had promised to stand by him for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, but there's nothing - even in the small print - about wasting her best years visiting a disgraced financier in prison. That wasn't the plan at all.

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