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Bust

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BUST

A Short Story

By Jon Edgell

Text copyright © 2015 Jon Edgell

All Rights Reserved

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Bust

Monday first thing. I was called into my Manager’s office. Seat taken and interruptions waved away. Ok, what is this? Deep breath. Drooping peace lily matching my mood.

“A very good story indeed.”

What was he talking about?

He passed a copy of Viva across the desk, bent open at my recently published short story. “Read it out for me,” he said.

Oh, that.

“Oh, that,” I said.

“Yes that… read it to me, please.”

“What, all of it?”

“Yes…it’s only short, 1,500 words it says, go on, we’ve got some time,” he said folding his arms behind his head, leaning back in his chair in that classic manager pose.

“From the start?”

“Of course.”

“Ok …”

I began.

‘I didn’t know at the time but apparently I was just the right profile for a fraudster …’

“Title? It needs a title.”

“Oh, yes, it is called Bust.

“Why Bust?”

“It’s about a man who is busted when he tries to defraud his company. It was just the title that we were given.”

“Ok, continue, please.”

I began again.

‘I didn’t know at the time ….’

Again he interrupted.

“And the bits at the start, the amusing, and ironic bits!”

I began once more, this time from the top of the page.

‘John Edgell’s previous works include Immaterial Discrepancy which was shortlisted by the Irish Times for best novella by a frustrated accountant (2007), and Oh, bollocks which won the Somerset Maugham memorial prize (2011). This is his third book. John lives in Zimbabwe with his wife and two children and in his spare time listens to Captain Beefheart records.

“Why Zimbabwe?”

“I don’t know, it’s just somewhere I visited once. Sounded like somewhere exotic for a writer to live.”

“Sorry I’m interrupting again, pray, continue.”

‘To My Mother.

“Just the usual dedication,” I explained.

‘I didn’t know at the time but apparently I was just the right profile for a fraudster (a “fraudster” – it was still hard saying that word); mid-life point, fairly modestly paid, in post for 10 years or more, well liked, and (crucially) well trusted. It didn’t help of course (although this was no excuse) that I seemed to be in a perpetual state of stress as the bills mounted and the credit card balances escalated. However despite this “ideal” profile, I do maintain that I wasn’t actually looking to defraud the company – but the opportunity just presented itself, and after a few weeks of thought I decided to take it. To that extent it was out of my hands.

‘This is how it happened. I came in one morning, after the weekend. £500 had gone missing from the cash drawer. Of course it should have been locked away, preferably in the safe or at least in a cash box inside the drawer. But there was no sign of any forced entry which indicated that this hadn’t been the case. The insurers would not have entertained such carelessness.

‘Had the money really disappeared for good or had someone merely borrowed it? Maybe my boss had come in over the weekend and taken it, or simply seen it lying around and locked it away somewhere safe. If someone had taken it would they tell me? Was it a test of my loyalty and honesty? All these paranoid thoughts ran through my head.

‘I decided I’d check with the cleaner. Maybe he would know something. He was an old man and I knew for a fact that he sometimes outsourced his job to someone else. I’d met sheepish strangers in the office before – working on behalf of the regular cleaner; strangers who had keys and knew the alarm code. Maybe this had happened on Friday evening, or Monday morning. I called and left a message.

‘I pondered the problem for a few hours that morning. It was my responsibility to safeguard the company’s funds and this would put me under severe pressure for not performing my duties correctly. There would be an investigation, the result of which would probably mean my dismissal and police involvement. The alternative would be to cover it up. With my experience I knew the holes in the system and consequently could work out a way to exploit them. I was also friendly with the company auditors. I knew where they focused their work and the areas they didn’t have the time to examine properly.

‘The longer I let it drift the easier it got. By the end of the day I had taken no further action and by the next day I’d made my decision (or a passive indecision more like) to just leave it. Month to month there were many (more minor admittedly) discrepancies carried forward without resolution through what I jokingly called my “9999 (or Nick Leeson)” account, and this would just be one more transaction to bury under thousands of others. I still had most of the year to tie up such discrepancies before the year end accounts would be put forward for scrutiny.

‘So it was relatively easy to dump the missing £500 in my special account. But as even non accountants tend to know book-keeping requires what we call “double-entry” meaning every entry in the books is balanced by an equal and opposite entry. So without getting too technical my real loss of £500 in the cash account had to be explained by a pretend gain of £500 somewhere else. Similar to this double “paper” control it is also said that much fraud requires a minimum of two people working in collusion (to take a simple example a cheque typically requires two signatures). But these “job separation” procedures were not necessarily consistently applied in my small company. I pretty much had full control of the books and enough IT knowledge to lay a false computerized audit trail behind the scenes. Also my colleagues were so removed from the finances that they wouldn’t be able to voice any doubts with any conviction anyway. My boss was old school – a maverick who made the decisions and left others to do the numbers, the only ones he cared about being the bottom line in the company accounts, and the ones that bloated his Christmas bonus statement.

‘In this case I chose a fictitious withdrawal of cash for a colleague as my “opposite-side” entry in the books. My colleague regularly required living expense floats for volunteers working on the company’s behalf and they rarely kept any receipts or records to properly account for the money. Importantly my colleague, although not in willing collusion of course, was so stretched she was rarely in a position to insist upon proper record keeping. This removed me several stages away from the source of the problem providing useful layers of vagueness, a vagueness that I had seen the auditors draw attention to over the years without actually insisting upon any reform. In any case if I could divert the auditors work elsewhere I was confident their strict timetable would not allow any extra time to be spent looking for such needles in haystacks.

‘So that was that (for a short while at least). However I had a nagging sense of unfairness which started to become more of an itch each day – after all I’d risked covering up the £500 but to no personal advantage (save for avoiding the investigation and inevitable disgrace I suppose) and I still had the bills to pay. Like all good business plans duplication and scaling seemed to be the key to success. I realized that I could repeat the process to my own advantage next time. And that was a big part of the trouble – it seemed just too easy to duplicate. So that’s what I did, starting small, testing the waters; I was confident I could get away with it but I wanted to see how I felt. Would I be able to sleep at night?

I kidded myself that I wasn’t doing anything wrong so sleeping wasn’t a problem. The company, and my boss, had plenty of money, and I didn’t, so I convinced myself I was just carrying out a fair redistribution of wealth. So I did it once, then twice, then again and again. Of course it was never enough and once I’d been tempted across that line for the first time it didn’t really matter how often I crossed it subsequently.

‘I varied my methods. I used my photoshop skills to duplicate stationery invoices for things we didn’t buy or receive but would never be discovered via our inadequate stock controls. I blatantly duplicated expense claims using photocopies. I temporarily bypassed the electronic signatory controls for online bank transfers. Each amount I stole (it is still hard to write that word, just like the fraud word) had to be balanced by a viable entry in the expenditure records whether it be stationery, travel expenses, or cash floats, but it wasn’t difficult for someone in my position.

‘But what happened in the end was unexpected and brought the whole episode full circle. Remember the cleaner? One morning, several months after I’d started my deceit, my boss passed me a telephone call from the cleaner. He (the cleaner) was most upset. He said that he had discovered the money in the possession of his son who had covered his shift for him one evening when he was feeling unwell. He was devastated he said, they both were, and he would return the money immediately. I told him not to worry. It was water under the bridge and I’d keep quiet; he wouldn’t lose his job, but he must return the money to me secretly in person and I’d ensure it was never mentioned again. I thought I’d got away with it, but I didn’t know that he’d already recounted the whole sorry episode to my boss. At the end of the call my boss came over and asked me what is was about. I made a plausible excuse about him being unable to access the building and asking if the alarm code had been changed?

‘“What about the £500?” my boss then asked.

‘It took a few seconds for this question to register but then my world just dropped out of my stomach! This was it now. My deceit all along had required precision planning and implementation; I wasn’t equipped to think on my feet like this.

‘Things began to unravel quickly. The auditors were called into investigate the missing £500 and the other false transactions were soon uncovered too to the tune of about £2,000 in total – not a life changing amount of course but this was meant to be just a start and who knows how far I would have gone.

‘I was suspended immediately but was spared a police investigation pending return of the money. On my inevitable dismissal I actually felt relief; I didn’t like the job anyway and as I would be unable to get a similar job, or hardly any job at all (what job doesn’t rely on integrity and honesty?) I was going to be forced to go it alone; to do something else, which I convinced myself would be a good thing in the long run. Maybe, like Nick Leeson, I’d even write a book!’

The end. A short pause and I placed the magazine back on the desk face down still open at my story. A longer pause and then….

“It’s a good story, I enjoyed it,” my boss said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Very informative actually, you bring up some good points which we really should look into sometime, but I have got a few problems first.”

“Yes?”

“My main problem is about this being a true story – it is a true story evidently.”

I wasn’t really getting it.

“Non-fiction,” he continued.

“Oh, no, of course not, just fictional, made up,” I laughed.

“Who is the accountant then?”

“Well he’s just this character in the book, the story, the main character.”

“But it says at the bottom….” he leans over and picks up the magazine again “…yes, here, it says a true life stories, of no more than 1,500 words.”

“Ah… well, it’s an imagined truth, if you like.”

“So the writer, this Jon who lives in where was it, South Africa or somewhere, isn’t you then?”

“No, of course not, I live here, that’s just some random…” I was incredulous.

He held his hand up to stop me. “Just a random accountant, named Jon, working for an ignorant boss too stupid to notice people stealing from under his nose then?”

Oh dear, I was getting it, seeing where this was going now. I shifted uneasily towards the edge of my chair.

“Yes, just using my experiences to formulate a story, a made up story.”

“Your experiences, your personal and recent experiences of ignorant and irresponsible bosses you say, what do you say here somewhere, a ‘maverick’.”

“No, no, that’s just an example.”

“A maverick, actually that’s fine, I quite like that, thank you. And I do leave the boring work to boring people, boring people I can trust.”

I’m thinking jeez, not so much ignorant as paranoid! It was just a little throw away story in a magazine that no one reads, certainly not my boss (how on earth did he find it?). Admittedly, it draws on some truths, of course it does; write what you know they say, but this John isn’t even spelt the same as my Jon for goodness sake. I do like Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica is a misunderstood masterpiece!) and I do have two kids but I’ve never written a prize winning novel called Oh, Bollocks (at least, not yet) and I certainly don’t live in South Africa or Zimbabwe, and as far as I’m aware our cleaner never called my boss to confess to stealing £500! It was ridiculous….

….or maybe he had and it wasn’t! (like the man in the story self-doubt was never far away in my reality).

“So you cheated?”

I had to think fast now, just for once perform on my feet and defend my honour; “No, it wasn’t cheating, it was a sort of imagined truth, that’s all, I was economical with the truth.” The room was closing in on me. “But you can’t say this experience was n’t a true life story for someone, somewhere, once,” I continued.

“So you are lying?”

“…no… yes, I mean, not entirely, it was a bit made up of course, a lot made up, just artistic license as they say, for dramatic effect to make a good story, told as if it was a true story, or could be a true story feasibly for someone, but honestly just made up.”

He continued to examine the words on the page closely. Looking up over the edge of the magazine he said: “It states here the winning author will receive a £50 book voucher. I assume you will be returning that unless…the story is actually true, in which case you’ll be needing that £50. I would suggest your first purchase would be a book on preparing a good CV.” He was enjoying this and couldn’t help smirking at his own wit.

“I’ll tell you what,” he continued reaching for his phone. “Let me call the magazine just to let them know, or …maybe… I should call the cleaner first just to check a few things. Which shall it be?” he pondered.

Black or red, odd or even, stick or twist….a cheat or a liar?

His plant looked so wilted. Someone had forgotten to water it on Friday.

***

About the Author

The real Jon Edgell lives in Brighton, UK, and has interests in music including Captain Beefheart (albeit his favourite album is Clear Spot), art, literature, travel and sport. He writes short stories for both children and adults, and articles and reviews for various magazines and websites.

For any feedback, comments, thoughts or questions please feel free to contact Jon on [email protected] or via twitter at http://twitter.com/jonedgellauthor or facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jonedgell.books

If you enjoyed this story please try one of Jon’s other short stories:

[Drive
Resolution
Drowndog]

Thank you.

***


Bust

Write what you know, they say, but was this fictional story just a little too close to the truth? An accountant enters a short story competition with unexpected consequences. File under Fiction ... or maybe not? "Bust" is a short story within a short story by the prize winning author of "Resolution".

  • ISBN: 9781311410825
  • Author: Jon Edgell
  • Published: 2015-10-05 01:05:07
  • Words: 2782
Bust Bust