She was still working on Nicky.
‘Are you hungry?’ Mr Nicholls’s voice woke her from a half-doze.
She pushed herself upright. Her neck had calcified, as bent and stiff as a wire coat hanger. ‘Starving,’ she said, turning awkwardly towards him. ‘You want to stop somewhere for lunch?’
The sun had emerged. It shone in actual rays off to their left, strobing a vast, open field of green. God’s fingers, Tanzie used to call them. Jess reached for the map in the glove compartment, ready to look up the location of the next services.
Mr Nicholls glanced at her. He seemed almost embarrassed. ‘Actually … you know what? I could really murder one of your sandwiches.’
The Stag and Hounds B&B wasn’t listed in any accommodation guides. It had no website, no brochures. It wasn’t hard to work out why. The pub sat alone on the side of a bleak, windswept moor, and the mossy plastic garden furniture that stood outside its grey frontage suggested an absence of casual visitors or, perhaps, the triumph of hope over experience. The bedrooms were apparently last decorated several decades previously, and bore shiny pink wallpaper, doilied curtains and a smattering of china figurines in place of anything useful like, say, shampoo or tissues. There was a communal bathroom at the end of the upstairs corridor, where the sanitary-ware was a non-ironic avocado and the pink soap was bisected by dark grey fissures. A small box-shaped television in the twin room deigned to pick up three channels, and each of those with a faint static buzz. When Nicky discovered the plastic Barbie doll in a crocheted wool ball dress that squatted over the loo roll, he was awestruck. ‘I actually love this,’ he said, holding her up to the light to inspect her glittery synthetic hem. ‘It’s so bad it’s actually cool.’
Ed couldn’t believe places like this still existed. But he had been driving for a little over eight hours at forty m.p.h., the Stag and Hounds was twenty-five pounds per night per room – a rate even Jess was happy with – and they were happy to let Norman in.
‘Oh, we love dogs.’ Mrs Deakins waded through a small flock of excitable Pomeranians. She patted her head, on which a carefully pinned structure sat like a small ginger cottage loaf. ‘We love dogs more than humans, don’t we, Jack?’ There was a grunt from somewhere downstairs. ‘They’re certainly easier to please. You can bring your lovely big fella into the snug tonight, if you like. My girls love to meet a new man.’ She gave Ed a faintly saucy nod as she said this.
She opened the two doors and waved a hand inside.
‘So you’ll be in this one, Mr and Mrs Nicholls. And your children will be next door. There’s only the two rooms this side so you have the whole upstairs to yourself. We have a selection of cereals for breakfast or Jack will do you egg on toast. He does a lovely egg on toast.’
She handed him the keys, held his gaze a millisecond longer than was strictly necessary. ‘I’m going to guess you like yours … gently poached. Am I right?’
Ed glanced behind him, checking that she was addressing him.
‘I am, aren’t I?’
‘Um … however they come.’ He didn’t really want to dwell on the thought of gelatinous white eggs.
‘However … they … come,’ she repeated slowly, her eyes not leaving his. She raised one eyebrow, smiled at him again, then headed downstairs, her pack of small dogs a moving hairy sea around her feet. From the corner of his eye he could see Jess smirking.
‘Don’t.’ He dropped their bags onto the bed.
‘I bags first bath.’ Nicky rubbed at the small of his back.
‘I need to revise,’ said Tanzie. ‘I have exactly seventeen and a half hours until the Olympiad.’ She gathered her books under her arm and disappeared into the next room.
‘Come and give Norman a walk first, sweetheart,’ Jess said. ‘Get some fresh air. It’ll help you sleep later.’
She unzipped a holdall, and pulled a hoodie over her head. When she lifted her arms, a crescent of bare stomach was briefly visible, pale and startling. Her face emerged through the neck opening. ‘I’ll be gone for at least half an hour. Or I … could make it longer.’ As she adjusted her ponytail she glanced towards the stairs and lifted an eyebrow at him. ‘Just … saying.’
He could hear her laughing as they disappeared. Ed lay down on the nylon bedspread, feeling his hair lift slightly with static electricity, and pulled his phone from his pocket.
‘So here’s the good news,’ said Paul Wilkes. ‘The police have completed their initial investigations. The preliminary results show no obvious motive on your side. There is no evidence that you extracted a profit from Deanna Lewis or her brother’s trading activities. More pertinently, there is no sign that you made any money at all from the launch of SFAX, other than the same share gains that would be made by any employee. Obviously there would be a higher proportion of profit, given your overall shareholding, but they can find no links to offshore accounts, or any attempt to conceal on your side.’
‘That’s because there were none.’
‘Also, the investigating team says that they have uncovered a number of accounts in Michael Lewis’s family’s names, which suggests a clear attempt to conceal his actions. They have obtained trading records which show that he was trading large volume immediately prior to the announcement – another red flag for them.’
‘Okay.’ He was still talking but the signal was patchy, and Ed struggled to hear him. He stood and walked over to the window. Tanzie was running round and round the pub garden, shrieking happily. The small yappy dogs were following her. Jess was standing, her arms folded, laughing. Norman was in the middle of the space, gazing at them all, a bemused, immovable object in a sea of madness. Ed thought he knew how he felt. He put his hand over his other ear. ‘Does that mean I can come back now? Is it sorted?’ He had a sudden vision of his office: a mirage in a desert.
‘Hold your horses. Here’s the less good news. Michael Lewis wasn’t just trading stocks, he was trading options on the stock.’
‘Trading what?’ He blinked. ‘Okay. You’re now speaking Polish.’
‘Seriously?’ There was a short silence. Ed pictured him in his wood-panelled office, rolling his eyes. ‘Options allow a trader to leverage his or, in this case, her investment, and generate substantially more in profits.’
‘But what does that have to do with me?’
‘Well, the level of profits he generated from the options is significant, so the whole case moves up a gear. Which brings me to the bad news.’
‘That wasn’t the bad news?’
‘Ed, why didn’t you tell me you’d written Deanna Lewis a damn cheque?’
Ed blinked. The cheque.
‘She cashed a cheque written by you for five thousand pounds to her bank account.’
‘So,’ and here, from the elaborately slow and careful tenor of his voice, it was possible to picture the eye roll again, ‘it links you financially to what Deanna Lewis was doing. You enabled some of that trade.’
‘But it was just a few grand to help her out! She had no money!’
‘Whether or not you extracted a profit from it, you had a clear financial interest in Lewis, and it came just before SFAX went live. The emails we could argue were inconclusive. But this means it’s not just her word against yours, Ed.’
He stared out at the moorland. Tanzie was jumping up and down and waving a stick at the slobbering dog. Her glasses had gone askew on her nose and she was laughing. Jess scooped her up from behind and hugged her.
‘Meaning, Ed, defending you just got a whole lot tougher.’
Ed had only properly disappointed his father once in his whole life. That’s not to say he wasn’t a general disappointment – he knew his father would have preferred a son who was more obviously in his own mould: upright, determined, driven. A sort of filial marine. But he managed to override whatever private dismay he felt at this quiet, geeky boy, and decided instead that as he so clearly couldn’t sort him out an expensive education would.
The fact that the meagre funds their parents saved over their working years sent Ed to private school and not his sister was the great Unacknowledged Resentment of their family. He often wondered whether, if they had known then what a huge emotional hurdle they were planting in front of her, they would still have done it. Ed never could convince her that it was purely because she was so good at everything that they never felt the need to send her. He was the one who spent every waking hour in his room or glued to a screen. He was the one who was hopeless at sports. The day he told his father that he had started running every day (the personal trainer had been right – he did eventually love it), he wore the same expression he would have worn at the announcement of an imminent grandchild.
But no, against all available evidence he was convinced that an expensive minor public school, with the motto ‘Sports Maketh the Man’, would maketh his son. ‘This is a great opportunity we’re giving you, Edward. Better than your mother or I ever had,’ he said repeatedly. ‘Don’t waste it.’ So when he opened the report at the end of Ed’s first year, which used the words disengaged, and lacklustre performance and, worst of all, not really a team player, he stared at the letter and Ed watched uncomfortably as the colour drained from his face.
He couldn’t tell him he didn’t really like the school, with its braying packs of bullying over-entitled Henries. He couldn’t tell him that no matter how many times they made him run round the rugby pitch he was never going to like rugby. He couldn’t explain that it was the possibilities of the pixellated screen, and what you could create from it, that really interested him. And that he felt he could make a life out of it. His father’s face actually sagged with disappointment, with the sheer bloody waste of it all, and he realized he had no choice.
‘I’ll do better next year, Dad,’ he said.
Ed Nicholls was due to report to the City of London police in a matter of days.
He tried to imagine the expression his father would wear when he heard that his son, the son he now boasted about to his ex-army colleagues, the pride with which he would say, ‘Of course I don’t understand what it is he actually does, but apparently all this software stuff is the Future’, was quite possibly about to be prosecuted for insider trading. He tried to picture his father’s head turning on that frail neck, the shock and disappointment pulling his weary features down even as he tried to disguise it, and his gently pursed lips as he grasped there was nothing he could say or do. The faint nod as he acknowledged that his son was, indeed, no better than he had ever really expected him to be.
And Ed made a decision. He would ask his lawyer to prolong the proceedings as long as possible. He would throw every penny of his own money at the case to delay the announcement of his supposed crime. But he could not go to that family lunch, no matter how ill his father was. He would be doing his father a favour. By staying away he would actually be protecting him.
Ed Nicholls stood in the little pink hotel bedroom that smelt of air freshener and disappointment and stared out at the bleak moors, at the little girl who had flopped onto the damp grass and was pulling the ears of the dog as he sat, tongue lolling, an expression of idiotic ecstasy on his great features, and he wondered why – given that he was so evidently doing the right thing – he felt like a complete shit.
Tanzie was nervous, even though she would only admit to ‘thirty-seven per cent nervous, maybe thirty-eight’. She refused supper, and declined to come downstairs even for a break, preferring to curl up on the pink nylon coverlet and plough through her maths papers while nibbling at what remained of the breakfast picnic. Jess was surprised: her daughter rarely suffered from nerves when it came to anything maths related. She did her best to reassure her, but it was hard when she had no idea what she was talking about.
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