Like a Thief in the Night

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This is the story of a Elizabeth and Derrick just days before they are set to wed. They are discussing the discoveries that he has made of his father's business, which he is set to take over. Elizabeth has to decide if she 's willing to accept the family's shame, or to call it off.

“I don’t understand, Derrick.”  I couldn’t believe he just dropped this bombshell on me, just days before our wedding. Derrick stood facing me in my small apartment in Dupont Circle, near the windows that overlook Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., as the rain poured down from the heavens outside, in thick sheets of gray. It was May 16, 1990, and we were to be married on Saturday, May 19, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in McLean, Virginia, the prestigious and affluent suburb of Washington where Derrick grew up and where generations of his family lived.

“I’ve discovered that Pop has been hiding money from his clients.” I looked at my fiance’s strong features; he was worn-out and tired, making him look much older than his thirty years. His dark, deep-set blue eyes were clouded with worry. He ran his strong hands through his dark hair. His height and strength were diminished by his anxiety.

“How did you find out?” I asked in disbelief. Derrick’s father owned a successful investment firm in the city; he put his entire life into the firm, building the family legacy. Derrick was set to take over operations of the firm by taking over as Vice President as soon as we returned from our honeymoon. Derrick’s father, Derrick Ronald Erhard, Jr., affectionately known as JR by his friends and colleagues, had been grooming his son for this, first sending him to Boston College for his undergraduate in business administration and finance, and then off to The University of Pennsylvania fo ran MBA and Masters in Finance. My Derrick, or Trip, as his family called him, was poised to take over the business, but what I was hearing now was that the firm was not as we had expected it to be.

“It’s a mess, Lizzy, a huge mess. I’m just so disappointed in Pop.”

“Okay, Calm down, baby.” I circled behind him and wrapped my arms around him, nestling my head between his shoulder blades. Derrick was a powerful man who had run track in college, and he maintained his physique by running regularly. It didn’t matter if it was rain or shine, he was out running. I could feel the muscles under his light cotton shirt. “I know we can work through this. It shouldn’t affect our wedding. You know I would be with you no matter what. It’s never  mattered to me if you’re a successful banker or a poor gardener. As long as we share a home, a bed and a life. I can face anything as long as you are by my side.”

Derrick turned around so that he was facing me, and he cupped my face in his hands. “Your words mean the world to me. It’s what I love best about you, the fact that you take me as I am. Through sickness and health, right?” His eyes bored into mine. They searched, as if trying to see if there was a hidden message that he was missing.

“I mean it, Love. We could be living in an efficiency in New York, as long as we have enough money for canvases and ramen noodles, I will be content.” I meant it. His money had been more of a deterrent to me than an attraction. I didn’t want to spend my life feeling obligated to him, his family and their money. I would have preferred to marry a simple man, knowing that we owed only ourselves for our successes and failures. But I learned early on, after losing myself in Derrick’s sapphire eyes and spending long nights talking and discussing the world and what we wanted, that I could not fight my attraction to him. I could not help but accept his money, his drive, and his family and all that entailed.

Yet, here we stood at the precipice of marriage and our future. Upon our return from Italy, we would move into the enormous house in McLean. To me it was a mansion, even though I knew that technically, it was missing the ballroom and servants a mansion would necessitate. The house could have fit five of my parents’ homes in it. I knew it would be a challenge for me to create a space in the vast structure that would feel like mine, a place to feel at home in. From what Derrick was telling me, we were at risk of not following this well laid path we had planned.

“So, explain to me what’s going on.” As I said this, I poured two big glasses of Malbec, Derrick’s favorite. I handed him one and took his free hand in mine and led him to the small sitting area. We sat next to each other on the antique sofa I had rescued from my grandmother’s home when she moved into the care facility a few years before. Knees touching and facing one another, Derrick began to tell me what he had uncovered..

“Okay.” He took a deep breath, I could see he was gaining the courage to tell me the entire story. “A few months back I was going through the account books, I wanted to be sure that everything is in order before I take over. Pop seemed to be in such a rush to hand it all over, something just didn’t sit right. He said he wanted to give us a good start to our marriage, but it felt like he is trying to push it off, rushing through it. The way I see it, either he really wants to  retire and move to the South, or something else is going on. I’ve caught him avoiding answers and making up little white lies too.”

“What kind of white lies?”

“I’ll say, ‘Pop, where is that paperwork for so-and-so’...only he can’t find it, and he blows it off, blaming his assistant on misplacing it. Then, when I remind him later, he pretends he doesn’t remember that I ever asked. You know how he can be gruff and dismissive? He does it all the time at work - to me, and it wasn’t always like that.” I looked at Derrick more carefully, his hands were trembling, his eyes looked bloodshot. I could understand the late nights now. The extra glass of wine or shot of bourbon after dinner. I could see that all this was taking its toll on him. Anger bubbled up inside of me. Not only was JR doing something with his firm, his actions were having a grave effect on my fiance.

“So, you think he is hiding something?” I asked hesitantly.

“I do, I just have a gut feeling, and I’m terrified to find out the depth of it.”

“Do you have any idea what it could be, and what the implications are?”

“Yes, I do. The reason I’m so upset today is that I think I found incriminating evidence.”

“What?” I gasped, covering my mouth with my hand, terrified to find out what had disturbed my otherwise immovable fiance.

“I found a transfer from one of our client accounts to another client’s, without any correspondence from them indicating they wanted the transfer. When I dug a little deeper, I found that same sum transferred to several different accounts, until I found it in an offshore account.”

“Derrick, am I understanding you correctly that you suspect that your father has embezzled client money into some sort of offshore account?”

“That is exactly what I am fearful of.”

“Oh, God. What will you do?”

“Well, I can make that money re-appear if Pop comes clean with me. God knows, if he’s doing it now, who knows how long these things have been going on. He could have embezzled any amount of money from his clients - clients he’s been working with for ages, clients who have trusted him. I don’t even know where to begin confronting him, having him come clean, and then putting things back in order. But it has to be done, I just can’t work in a corrupt business; I will not look the other way. I know that in this business, and in this day and age, people are corrupt, hell, it’s nearly the expected: they do unethical things. I just can’t sell my soul like that.”

“Derrick, are you going to report this to the authorities?” My words were intended more as a rhetorical question than an authentic one. The answer seemed obvious to me.

“No!” Derrick got up and walked away from me, looking out of the window over Massachusetts Avenue. I could see the conflict brewing inside of him. “I can’t do that for many reasons. Pop would serve time, the company would be destroyed, and if it somehow were to survive, then rebuilding our reputation would take decades. We would lose everything, Lizzy. My career as an investment broker would be finished. I share not only his name, but his reputation as well. Years of schooling, years of grooming myself, building relationships of trust with clients. All up in smoke.”

“But you can’t let him get away with it! He has stolen money from his clients. How can you turn the other way?” Now I stood up, coming closer to him, but keeping my distance. I was revolted by what he was telling me.

“I wouldn’t turn the other way, not completely at least. I would make Pop leave the business. He has to retire immediately. I’ll return the funds, and find some way to explain it to the clients so that they don’t believe it was Pop embezzling. Then, I’ll work very, very hard to make sure everything that happens in that office is clean, tracked, and transparent. I want people to know when they trust us with their money, it is safe.”

Derrick passionately defended himself. He made it seem as if hiding these crimes was the right thing to do. I believe he had already convinced himself that by handling it on his own, he would undo what JR had done. Only, it didn’t sit right with me. How could I stand by when the law was broken?  People’s money had been taken for personal gain and hidden in some off-shore account. I didn’t think I could enjoy our planned future: the house, the cars and jewelry purchased with that money. It would be tainted by what his father had done for God knows how long.

“Derrick, I just don’t know if I can stand by, live in that house, off that money. It goes against everything I am, everything I know.”

“Lizzy, please listen to me. I attended six years of school, I have spent every summer and vacation working for Pops while all my classmates spent their time at the beach or on vacations in Europe. I have put years of work into the firm. I’m confident that the work I have done has been honest. I know that the people who work for Pop have earned their money, they support their families, and they are good people. If the company implodes, not only do I lose everything that I have been working for, but all the employees do too, and they will be equally tainted with the shame of Pop’s guilt. No one will hire them knowing that possibly they took part in this.”

“But, Derrick, maybe they did! How can you trust anyone who worked for your father?” Exasperated, I stormed across the small room into the kitchen, where I refilled my wine glass.

“I will have to spend many, many late nights cleaning things up and finding out if anyone other than Pops knew about this. I will remove anyone who was associated with it, but I will not punish innocent and hardworking employees for my father’s greed.”

I knew that he had many good points, but my gut revolted at the thought of letting him go without punishment. JR had always seems like a slippery snake to me. He always said the right things to everyone, pulling everyone into his trap through flattery and feigned interest. Except my parents. He clearly had little respect for my Minnesotan parents; he wasn’t impressed with Grandpa being a professor and my mother a housewife. His interest in those with power and money always seems so transparent to me. But I adored his son. Derrick was everything his father was not. Yes, he had money, but he understood the value of working for that, for respecting people, regardless of where they came from. He treated my family just as well as he treated those clients and friends who were worth millions. I often wondered what his mother had been like; she must have been incredible to raise Derrick. It was unfortunate that she died young, and that I never got to meet her.

I looked up at Derrick, who stood before me with pain in those blue eyes and hope etched in his features. “Derrick, you know I love you more than anything, but I need to think on this. It changes everything for me.”

“Lizzy, what are you saying? Elizabeth?” His sweet face was crestfallen, I could tell he never anticipated that I would hesitate to accept his solution. He believed so strongly that he could handle it and administer justice himself.

“My sweet, sweet man, I know your heart is in the right place, but I just don’t know if I can live my whole life knowing that we aided a criminal, that we did not do right by the law.”

“I guess you need time to think then. I am not going to sacrifice what the Erhards have worked to build for generations because one corrupt man became greedy in his old age. I can’t do that.”

My heart broke into a thousand pieces at his words. How could I choose? I just wished he could see it from my perspective. If I were willing to live with the simple things in life, why couldn’t he? Wasn’t I enough for him? Why did he need the bank, the house, the money and the legacy? He has so many other talents that he never acknowledged. He was incredible at gaining the trust of those around him, of managing people. Somehow, we could manage, I knew that we could. If only he could have as much faith in himself, in us, as I did.

He got up and gathered his coat, ready to be enveloped by the storm raging outside, and within himself, I knew. His face reflected the emotions I felt. Distress, heartbreak and conviction. Just as I was convinced that I knew what was right, so was he. It was the very characteristic I loved so much about him.

__________________________________________________________________

 

Elizabeth turns to her daughter, Addison, having told this family secret for the first time in its entirety. She looks at her strong daughter, who holds the same strength of character as both her parents. The conviction of knowing what is right and wrong, and the strength to carry out those beliefs. Her caramel-colored hair frames her face. Her clear green eyes hold the same clarity that once drew Elizabeth to Derrick. It is hard to imagine that twenty-five years have passed since that May day. They sit together on Addison’s bed in her cozy bedroom overlooking the garden and studio Elizabeth loves so much. The very same house that so long ago she couldn’t imagine living in.

“I always knew that something had happened with Pop and the firm, and I knew that Dad had worked hard to correct it, but I didn’t realize that he had been stealing money for all those years. Wow. Why did you decide to accept Dad’s solution?

“It’s really simple in the end. I loved him. I loved him more than anything.The panic I felt when he walked out that door. It was crushing. It was then that I realized that just as I could live somewhere with nothing just to be with your dad, I could live with this too. I needed your dad to be complete. Without him I was just a part of myself, but not the whole.”

“But, did you ever really accept it?” Addison looks at her mother with the innocence that only youth can deliver. The belief that you can stand by your ideals, your convictions and do what is right, without question. She gazes at her with the hope that her mother will uphold this naive belief. Hoping that her mother did not have to sellout to love her father.

“No, I struggle every day with that decision. Every purchase I make, each time I come home, I can’t help but think that we don’t deserve any of it. So, I hide myself in the only place that was built by my money, my studio, and I feel at home there, and at peace.”



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