BY NANCY BOYCE
Nancy Boyce lives in Buckhorn, Ontario with her husband John. Copyright is held by the author.
CLAIRE KEPT TELLING HERSELF it was just lunch, but the butterflies in her stomach persisted. She thought Blake was attractive when she met him during her interview, but was serious about getting the position of Office Administrator in this well respected accounting firm and put all personal thoughts aside. He smiled at her as he walked past her desk. She liked the way his eyes crinkled in the corners when he smiled. She needed to concentrate on her work; there’d be plenty of time to look at him during lunch.
Claire made every effort to remain business-like with Blake. He was charming, attentive and just a wee bit flirty or maybe it just felt flirty when he smiled at her and it went straight through her. She appreciated his interest in her studies to obtain her Chartered Accountant designation. She casually engaged some of the other women in the office in conversation to find out what she could about Blake. From what she could gather, he was friendly to everyone, but hadn’t dated anyone in the office. She had been very hesitant to accept his invitation to lunch and darn her practicality, she had made it clear to Blake that she was not interested in dating anyone that she worked with, especially management. Claire reasoned with herself that there was nothing more to lunch than getting to know each other better. Who had time for a love affair anyway, when you had a full time job, studies and charity work? Too bad, Claire thought. He could easily have been the man of her dreams.
Claire met Blake next to his red Ford Escape in the parking lot behind their building. He opened the door for her and ensured she was safely tucked in before closing the door. When he got settled and turned on the car his Sting CD blasted out at them.
“Sorry,” Blake said as he turned the volume down to a whisper.
He took her to a small café. Claire could see from the sidewalk sandwich board that they served a variety of salads and quiches, just her kind of food. After they ordered their meals Claire glanced around the room and then looked at Blake.
“I recognize a smirk when I see one,” Blake said, chuckling.
Claire leaned in and said in a hushed voice, “It doesn’t look like your kind of place.”
“It isn’t,” he replied, “but I hoped it would be yours.”
Points for that one, Claire thought.
Claire enjoyed the food almost as much as she enjoyed Blake’s company.
“I understand you specialize in non-profit community organizations,” Claire said.
“Yes, I have corporate clients, but I look after all our non-profits,” Blake replied. “I want to help other non-profits as well, so I donate my time to speak to charities about risk management and I write magazine articles on the same topic.”
“I should come and hear you speak,” Claire said, laughing, “It would help me with my studies. My goal is to help people get jobs or better jobs, so I volunteer as a tutor in a couple of literacy programs. My students normally achieve their goals, but the best part is seeing the boost to their self-confidence.”
“I’m sure you’re a great tutor. I’ve watched you as you explain things to other people in the office. You’re very thorough and patient,” Blake commented.
A couple of days later, Claire went to the Northern Adult Literacy (NAL) office to meet with her student. As she parked her car and walked past a red Escape in the parking lot, her mind drifted to Blake. She was a bit early and looked forward to seeing her friend Eve, the program coordinator. They sat and chatted in Eve’s office.
“What’s got you all starry eyed?” Eve asked.
“Is it that obvious? I can’t stop smiling,” Claire said.
“It’s one of the partners at work. I told him that I don’t want to get involved, but I am so drawn to him,” Claire explained.
“Go for it girlfriend,” Eve said.
“No, I can’t get involved with someone I work with, so I’ll have to admire him from afar. And admire him, I do!” Claire said.
As they talked, Joyce, the financial officer, walked by in a knit dress that was a bit too tight. She was in her own little world, humming a song and jingling her car keys.
Eve whistled at Joyce and called to her, “Seeing lover boy tonight, are we?”
“You’ve got that right,” Joyce said over her shoulder as she playfully swayed her hips and lifted her hand in a wave.
Claire watched Joyce through the window as she got into her red Escape and drove away. Hmm, Claire thought, Why is that tune so familiar?
Claire met with her student Tom every Saturday afternoon at the Adult Learning Unlimited (ALU) office. Tom was scheduled to write his GED exam in a couple of months and then he would have his high school equivalency. Claire got Tom started on his essay and while he worked, she stared out the window at the parking lot. She watched a woman get out of her red Escape and run into the building. She heard the woman hum a familiar tune as cabinet doors banged, then watched the woman run back to her vehicle with an envelope in her hand. Something didn’t feel right, but Claire couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
“It’s great to see you Eve. I’m so glad you called me to have dinner,” Claire said as they greeted each other outside the restaurant.
Once they were settled at a table, Eve picked up her menu and then put it back down again. She smoothed her hands over the menu. “I need to talk to you about something Claire and it has to remain confidential. I may be jumping to conclusions and I hope I am.”
“You have my full attention,” Claire said as she put her menu aside.
“We had a fund raiser on the weekend,” Eve explained, “and I was sure we should have raised a lot more money than what Joyce reported at our staff meeting.”
“Did you express your concerns to Joyce?” Claire asked.
“Yes, she was pretty defensive and seemed really hurt that I questioned her. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but I’ve wondered for a while about her sudden affluent lifestyle.”
“Could the sudden change in lifestyle be due to the new boyfriend?” Claire asked.
“Yes, he leased that vehicle for her so I know he’s a big spender,” Eve replied.
“You need to have more control at your next fund raiser. Make sure you have a common cash box and more than one person to go through the sold tickets. Keep an eye on her and watch out for anything else that is unusual,” Claire explained.
A couple of weeks later, Claire dropped by the NAL office a bit early as Eve had requested. As they sat in Eve’s office speaking in hushed tones, Claire saw Joyce walk by. Gone was the confident, happy woman. This woman slouched and had dark circles under her eyes. They watched Joyce get into an old Chev Cavalier that had seen better days.
“The guy’s dumped her, I’m sure of it,” Eve commented.
Claire accepted an invitation to have a drink with Blake after work and once again met him in the parking lot. As he turned on his car, the CD started to play.
Every breath you take
And every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you
“That’s it,” Claire thought, “That’s the tune I keep hearing.” An uneasy feeling came over her as she stared at the CD player.
Blake noticed and said, “Sorry, the CD comes on automatically. You must be getting sick of that song.”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” Claire replied.
“Hi Claire, it’s Eve. How are you?”
“I’m fine, but you don’t sound very good,” Claire replied.
“I’m not. Joyce called in sick all week. I was asked to look after some of her duties and I’ve had a chance to investigate my suspicions further. Things aren’t adding up and I want to speak to Joyce myself before I bring it to the board’s attention. Will you come with me?”
“Sure Eve, come pick me up.”
“Hello Joyce, you know Claire. Can we come in?” Eve asked as they stood on Joyce’s front porch.
Joyce stepped aside and let them enter without a word. Joyce sat down with a wad of tissues in her hand and Eve joined her on the sofa.
Eve put her hand on top of Joyce’s and asked, “Do you want to talk about it, honey?”
Tears dropped on Eve’s hand as Joyce sniffled. She looked at Eve through red, puffy eyes and said, “I’ve messed up really bad Eve and I don’t know what to do.”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning,” Eve encouraged, “and you can work up to those bad parts.”
“Blake broke up with me. I guess you already figured that one out.”
The sound of his name caused Claire’s chest to tighten. It wasn’t a common name, but she was sure Joyce was speaking about a different Blake.
“I thought he was in love with me. He leased the Escape and lavished gifts and attention on me. In no time, I was head over heels. Then he asked me to setup a bank account with the name NAL. I thought it didn’t seem right, but he said it was a common accounting practice.”
Claire’s throat started to hurt as she realized that Joyce was talking about her Blake.
“He had me get the Treasurer of the Board to sign a new signature card for that account. He told me to ensure the spot wasn’t marked to indicate that two signatures were required. A month later he asked me to bring in our books for him to review and give advice. He indicated that all cheques payable to NAL should go into this new account and all cheques payable to Northern Adult Literacy should go into the regular account. Slowly, he started making comments about how charity begins at home and how I deserved to be making more money than I did. He suggested that I withdraw some money for myself from that new NAL account. Stupid me, I did!”
“I’m assuming he wanted a share of the pie,” Eve commented. “When did he start asking for money?”
“Shortly after that,” Joyce replied.
“Did you send acknowledgments to those donors?” Eve asked.
“Yes, I had to send out thank you notes for all donations to NAL.”
Was it just those cheques?” Claire asked, “Did the money come from any other sources?”
“There wasn’t enough money in those cheques, so he had me skim money off the cash donations. I told him that I thought they were suspicious at work and that seemed to scare him. When I couldn’t come up with enough money, he broke up with me and took back the Escape. I was devastated, but once I recovered from the shock, I felt relieved. I thought I might have gotten away with it and my life could go back to normal. My life isn’t normal though, I feel horrible about what I’ve done.”
“I hope I’m not making a huge mistake Joyce,” Eve said. “I’m going to keep this quiet for now, but you can’t come back to work.”
“My friend Peter is an excellent lawyer. We can consult with him about the next steps,” Claire said. “We can help you, but we’ll need your full cooperation.”
Claire was silent as Eve drove her home. “Are you okay honey?” Eve asked.
“He seemed so perfect,” Claire replied. “I’m going to need more information, before I can accuse him of any wrong doing.”
“Are you working late Claire?” Blake asked.
“No, I’m studying until I need to leave for my appointment.”
Blake leaned over Claire’s shoulder. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her neck as he said, “Governmental and Not-for-Profit Accounting. Are you thinking of following in my footsteps?”
Claire closed the book and turned to look at Blake. “Not exactly,” she said in a tone that was colder than she had intended.
Sensing that he had interrupted her studies, Blake said, “Don’t let me interfere,” and started for the door. He stopped abruptly and turned. “Let’s have dinner one night and you can tell me all about your course and ask me any questions that you might have. Good night.”
“I’m sure you can help me with my next course,” Claire said after the door closed behind Blake, “Fraud Prevention and Investigation.”
Something told Claire that there was more to Blake’s scheme than just his involvement with Joyce. She needed to investigate all his non-profit clients. She started reviewing the hard copy files; not chancing the possibility that someone would see that she had accessed the electronic files. An hour later, Claire had a complete list of all the non-profit organizations that Blake had audited, complete with the names and addresses of their financial officers. There were eight other non-profit organizations in addition to NAL and ALU. Claire struck three organizations off her list, those with men as financial officers. That left Claire with five organizations to investigate. Claire spent the next hour reviewing the last audits for each organization, but couldn’t find anything to prove her suspicions. Even without taking the Fraud Prevention course, she already knew that audits were not designed to find fraud. Prevention was the key.
Claire adjusted her route to and from work to be able to check out those five organizations. She saw a red Escape at only one location and verified the license plate on a second trip. Claire drove by the home of the financial officer for that location and saw the same red Escape parked in her driveway. Then she drove by the ALU financial officer’s home and saw a red Escape there. She needed to speak to those women.
“Joyce, we need your help. We suspect that Blake made the same deal with two other women,” Claire said as she and Eve met at Joyce’s house. Joyce was shocked. Claire understood how she felt; she was shocked too when she first heard Joyce’s story about Blake.
“We’d like to meet with these other women to confirm if they also made deals with the devil and I’d like to start with Rose at ALU,” Claire said.
Rose didn’t recognize the two women on her porch. “Can I help you?” she asked.
Claire introduced herself and Joyce and then said to Rose, “We’d like to discuss Blake with you.”
When Rose hesitated, Claire continued. “We suspect that Blake has been having affairs with three women including you and has encouraged them to embezzle money from their organizations.”
“I think you better come in,” Rose replied.
Once they were settled in Rose’s livingroom, Joyce told Rose her story. Silent tears fell as Rose listened.
“I thought he loved me,” Rose said, “I’ve been such a fool.”
Angela was next on the list. They used the same approach and were soon seated on Angela’s front porch. Her husband was watching TV inside.
After Joyce finished telling her story, Angela took a few minutes to compose herself. “I had an affair with Blake, but I haven’t told my husband,” she admitted.
Claire wished she had brought Eve along. She didn’t want to overwhelm Angela with too many people, but Eve was the one that always knew the right thing to say.
“He wined and dined me for a while,” Angela said, “and then he presented me with the Escape, which wasn’t easy to explain to my husband, but I told him it was a company car.”
Angela turned to Joyce, “I can’t believe he gave you and that other woman Escapes as well.”
“Did he ask you to take money from your organization,” Claire asked.
“No, not initially. He asked me for a personal loan. He said it was for a business deal and he’d be able to pay me back soon. The money didn’t come and then he asked for more, said he was going to score big this time and would pay me back with interest. I started skimming money from the cash at work. I figured I could put it back later, kind of an interest free loan.”
“Did he have some type of business deal? Do you think that’s why he tried to take money from all of us?” Joyce asked.
Angela started to laugh. “He’s a gambler Joyce. He’s addicted to it. None of us will ever see the money again.”
Angela could see that Joyce was upset. She lowered her voice and continued, “I realized what a mistake I had made and tried to break things off. He accepted the end of the affair, but he wouldn’t let me out of the business arrangement. He threatened me and got me to setup the same type of fake account as you mentioned. He told me that the lease on the car was for three years and the same term applied to me. I was sick when I realized that he had used me. I wondered if he’d pick a new victim once he was finished with me.”
“Did he suggest any other methods to defraud?” Claire asked.
“Yes, when I couldn’t keep up with his financial demands, he told me to muck with the payroll. I didn’t want to do that, so I’ve been paying Blake out of my own pocket just to keep him quiet. I’ve been sinking more and more into debt,” Angela explained.
“I guess I was lucky that Eve was suspicious. It scared Blake away from me,” Joyce commented.
“We’re going to expose Blake. Will you help us?” Claire asked.
“Yes. I should have come forward sooner. I was scared and I didn’t know who to turn to for help. I think I’d do anything now to escape this hell,” Angela replied.
“We have a good lawyer for Joyce and he can represent you as well. He thinks the court will be more lenient on all of you if you cooperate,” Claire explained.
“Perhaps he can get me the same leniency with my husband,” Angela said sadly.
As Office Administrator, Claire scheduled all meetings. Blake saw that he had an appointment with Rose, but knew he hadn’t asked her to come in. As he walked through the door of the boardroom, he started to say, “Rose, what a nice…” The colour drained from his face. Claire sat there with Eve, Joyce, Rose and Angela.
“Blake, I believe you know why we’re here,” Claire said. “I feel deeply saddened by what has happened, for what these women have been through, for what has happened to their organizations and for the shame that you have brought on our firm.”
“Our firm, Claire? I’m the partner here, not you,” Blake said, lashing out.
Then Blake turned on the other women, “You can’t report me without implicating yourselves.”
“We’re prepared to do that Blake,” Angela said. “We have a lawyer and we’re turning ourselves in right after this meeting.”
Blake turned suddenly at the sound of the door opening. “Russell, we were just…”
“Blake, take a seat.” Russell, the senior partner of the firm took his seat at the head of the table. He addressed the entire group, “Claire met with me early this morning and explained everything. I am not prepared to have the good name of my company tarnished by a scandal. I spent too many years building up my business.”
“Russell, I can explain,” Blake said.
Russell waved his hand dismissively. “I’d like to finish without interruption,” he said. “I met with the other partners and our lawyer this morning. I am prepared to pay compensation to each of you and make sizeable donations to the affected organizations. Our lawyer has drawn up non-disclosure agreements and I’d like each of you to sign one. This is an all or nothing type of deal. If I do not have your full cooperation, three of you women and Blake will go to jail. Your organizations will receive bad publicity and lose even more money. I am offering you an alternative. You will not serve any jail time and you will have enough money to live comfortably while you look for other employment. You will have to resign your current positions.”
The women stole nervous glances at each other, each of them anxious to know what the other one thought.
“Eve, sorry, which one of you is Eve?” Russell asked.
“Eve, I know that you were not involved, but I am willing to compensate you for signing the non-disclosure agreement. If you find this unpalatable, then I can donate your share to the community organization where you are employed. Of course, I do not expect you to resign.”
He turned to face Claire. “Blake will be staying on as a partner in this firm and your working relationship will be strained. I want you to take a leave of absence. During that time, you will receive full wages and I am prepared to pay for your education while you pursue your CA designation. When you have completed your studies, you’re to see me about employment once again, but this time in Auditing and Accounting as an associate.”
As Russell looked at Blake, his clenched jaw and stilted words betrayed his real emotion. “This is something that I would normally handle in private, but I think these women have a right to hear this. I want you to take a leave of absence as well. You will admit yourself to a private mental health clinic for addiction to resolve your gambling problem and hopefully overcome this sense of entitlement you seem to have.”
Russell stood and instructed the women, “Ladies, I will allow you 20 minutes to discuss this. There must be complete agreement among you. Then I will bring our lawyer in and we can start the process of signing the agreements.”
“Blake, come with me,” Russell ordered as he left the room.
Claire spoke first. “I’m sure you may feel that justice is not being served if Blake does not go to jail, but let’s leave Russell to deal with him. I encourage all of you to sign these agreements.”
Claire turned to Eve. “I hope I’m not disappointing you, but your organization will benefit more by your silence than it will by Joyce and Blake going to jail.”
“As much as it grieves me, I have to agree with you,” Eve responded.
“Are we all in agreement?” Claire asked.
Everyone nodded and expressed agreement.
Angela turned to Claire with tears in her eyes, “Thank you Claire for helping all of us to escape.”