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29

THANK GOD, ALICIA HALL thought, they still had Mrs. Parsons to cook for them. Mrs. Parsons detested Monroewell, everybody detested Monroe, as she was sadly awarebut Alicia had brought Mrs. Parsons into the marriage with her, Mrs. Parsons having been Alicias mothers cook, and Mrs. Parsons had chosen to stay on where so many of the less steely had fallen by the wayside. Her decision, Alicia knew, had been based on the assumption that Alicia might well need protection, or at least moral support, in the long darkness of the marriage to come. That assumption was wrong, since Alicia was the one human being Monroe treated with unfailing gentleness and concern, but Alicia had been happy to play the part of a Bront"e heroine if it meant she wouldnt have to learn how to cook.

Their dining room table was really wrong for their lifestyle, since it readily seated sixteen while these days there were never more than two places to be filled, at the end nearest the kitchen. The resulting long empty stretch of table made the two of them seem lonelier, somehow, than they really were. Or maybe it didnt; Alicia preferred, if possible, not to brood.

Mrs. Parsons had been a wonderful cook for many yearsthe woman must be seventy, at least, stout, silent, and hatchet-facedand her hand had not yet lost its skill. These days, given the servant problem in the house, she did most of her shopping on the Internet, which worked wonderfully well. The Internet really isnt the place to shop for peanut butter or cereal, but the more expensive, lush, esoteric reaches of the food world were born for Internet treatment. From FedEx or United Parcel to Mrs. Parsonss kitchen for transmogrification, and finally to the two people seated in candlelight at one end of the very long table, her waddling figure bearing the platters and tureens, preceded by the best of all possible aromas. It made life as an outcast not so bad.

This evening, as they consumed a fine duck breast and baby new potatoes and haricots vert accompanied by an excellent St. Emilion, Monroe said, Darling, I have good news.

Alicia had forgotten there might be such a thing. Really?

Henry Cooper, after just a little nudging from me, has come through at last. I knew I knew how to handle him.

Come through?

Tomorrow, we shall interview four prospective new employees, Monroe told her, and he beamed when he saw how hed astonished her.

Yes, he had astonished her. Four? Really, Monroe? All at once?

A new chauffeur, at last, Monroe ticked them off. A new private secretary. A new butler. And an additional man to beef up security.

But thats fantastic, Alicia said. How did Henry manage?

How did I manage Henry, is what you mean. He chortled, pleased with himself. Youll never guess.

Tell.

I offered to buy the agency.

You what? She stared at him. What would you want with an employment agency?

Nothing, Monroe said. It was a bluff, of course. I simply told him I could see he wasnt on top of the business the way he should be, so Id buy it from him and install someone really topnotch to run it for me.

But thats insulting, Alicia pointed out. And Henry is our friend. Or was.

Insulting was the point, dear, Monroe said. And dont worry about losing Henry Cooper. As Id thought, my offer goaded him into finding fresh people for us right away.

Well, thats wonderful, of course.

Theyll be coming by for their interviews tomorrow, and I really find it hard to believe Ill reject a one of them.

I certainly hope not. Alicia looked at the food still on her plate. With a chauffeur, she said, Mrs. Parsons could do some farmstand shopping. The seasons just beginning, Monroe.

Life is getting better, he said, with his big smile. Then his smile turned into a laugh, as he said, Oh, I have to tell you, the most comic thing.

Comic?

You know, he said, I must constantly make out tax returns, reports to the bankruptcy court, all of these things.

The accountants do, you mean.

Yes, of course, when I say I I dont mean literally I. But the thing is, my instructions have always been, overload them. Give them every detail, no matter how irrelevant. If I buy a newspaper, put it down. Put everything down.

But, Monroe, why?

Two reasons, he said. They want reports, Ill give them reports, Ill give them so many reports theyll choke on them, theyll go blind trying to keep up with all my reports, Ill bore them into an early grave with the volume of my reports. And the second thing, connected to that, if it ever does become necessary, and you know I hope it never does

Oh, dear.

Yes, I know. But if it ever does become necessary to tuck a little something naughty in there, I can reasonably hope, with all the mass of detail over such a long period of time, no one will notice.

I hope it never has to happen, Alicia said. Weve had all the trouble we need, my dear.

Oh, exactly so, he said. But heres the comical thing, I found this out yesterday. The trouble that descended this time was not on me but on that personal trainer fellow of mine, Flip.

Flip? She didnt understand. How can he be in trouble?

Because I reported to the IRS that Id paid him so much and so much, Monroe said, as I report everything. But I paid him in cash, and he never reported it. Monroes laugh was hearty indeed. One of the little people, he said, hes not supposed to get away without paying taxes. Were supposed to get away with that sort of thing. Hes supposed to pay his little mite, to take up our slack.

With a little moue of distaste, Alicia said, Monroe, dont joke like that.

He looked briefly sober, but the laugh was still back there. Oh. Yes. In any event, he got caught. He wanted to complain about it, I could see it in his eyes, but he didnt have the guts for it.

Alicia said, Did you ever tell him you were going to report those payments?

It never occurred to me, Monroe said. He shrugged, drank wine, patted his lips, said, It will be a good lesson to him.


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