On the Wednesday before Eliza’s first show, Jeremiah arrived at lunch time smelling strongly of brandy. His pale blue eyes were red and his thin hair messier than due a man who seemed to be constantly in his hat, even indoors when it should have been hung on the stand by the door.
Ryan ignored Jeremiah. In his mind the senior Hutchinson was his boss and Jeremiah just a poor substitute, who was either drunk or absent. Jeremiah swore off his lacsidaisical approach to running the shop, insisting he was away at business meetings or at important social events. But Ryan knew better. The smell of brandy, like this morning, was always on his breath and you didn’t have to poke too far into local gossip to hear of Jeremiah’s increasingly desperate attempts to pay his gambling debts.
Jeremiah only seemed to make an appearance at the shop when he was looking for money. There had been no precedent established for Ryan to accept payments or to bank money, so when Mr Higgins insisted Ryan take the money for his son’s coffin and “Keep it from Jeremiah” he added, keeping his voice low, “George must know what he’s doing leaving Jeremiah up here by himself, but…” he left the sentence unfinished, pressing the bills into Ryan’s hand. “You’ll know how to keep it safe.”
Ryan found the receipt book and wrote a receipt and shook Mr Higgins hand, then closing the shop, took the money directly to their timber supplier, who Ryan knew had not been paid for two months.
Jeremiah went straight into the tiny, airless office and Ryan could hear him pulling the drawers open, the key to the strong box rattling and then swearing. Moments later Jeremiah appeared his normally thin, pale face bloated with rage.
“When was the Higgin’s account paid.” Jeremiah waved the receipt book in front of his face, fanning the heat in it.
“Mr Higgins stopped by Monday and insisted he make payment. I tried to explain to him I was not authorised to accept payments and suggested he return when you would be in the office to settle the account, but he refused.”
“So you took the payment. Where is it now. The strong box is empty – yet there is a receipt in your appalling handwriting for having accepted the money.”
Ryan put down his hammer and walked over to Jeremiah.
“I took the money and paid for the lumber. You don’t seem to understand Jeremiah that if you do not pay the people who supply you they will stop. And if we cannot source timber we cannot build coffins. And if we don’t build coffins there is nothing to se –”
“I am not an imbecile, Anderson. Now where is the money.”
“I just explained to you, sir,” with Ryan adding additional emphasis to the final word to mock Jeremiah. “I took Mr Higgin’s final payment on his son’s coffin and took the money to Mr Jarrod. When I returned I folded the receipt and placed it inside our receipt book.”
“Where is it now?”
“I have no idea, as you’re shaking the receipt book all over the place. Perhaps you dropped it on the way out of the office.”
Jeremiah advanced on Ryan stopping an inch shy of his curved, capillary pocked beak crashing into Ryan’s nose.
“The receipt is not in there. In its absence I come to the conclusion you stole the money.”
Ryan’s fingers curled into fists, but he kept his face blank as he struggled against the urge to plough his fist into Jeremiah’s face.
“It is the conclusion you may jump to Jeremiah, but the conclusion your father would come to is that you were not present to take the money from Mr Higgins as you were meant to and as such, you are responsible for the missing money. Which I might add, is not missing, but in the accounts of Mr Jarrod.”
“You will leave my father out of this.”
“If we close the shop for a few minutes we can walk down to Mr Jarrod’s office and clear this up. He will have a copy of the receipt given.”
“How about you and I take a walk to the police station.”
“It would be my pleasure Jeremiah, if it would show you up for the incapable and erratic businessman you are.”
Jeremiah’s face fell in on itself, though his blood shot eyes never left Ryan’s.
“This isn’t over, Anderson.”
“I don’t imagine it ever will be with you, Jeremiah.”
“You will call me Mr Hutchinson.”
Ryan bit his lower lip.
“You will call me Mr Hutchinson or I will sack you.”
Ryan wrestled with himself, his fist clenching and unclenching.
“If this is a bad time, I can come back,” a voice called from the sales vestibule.
“Just a moment,” Jeremiah called back, struggling to put a pleasant tone into the flat words. “And just so you are aware, Sunday you are expected at church, as is fitting of a man of your, expanding station in the community.”
“It seems my father’s expectations for you outstrip your own. If we are to continue to attract the right type of clientele here you must be seen in the right places. Service begins at 9am. Ensure you’re not in your work clothes. You do own a proper suit, don’t you Anderson?”