• Novel Excerpt

  • By Arthur Steele

    Chapter 1 - Excerpt             

    Jake Foster felt untethered, and not in a good way.

    When Arlene had said she was leaving him, relief was his strongest emotion. Now, after three years, he spent his time drinking to ease his panic about the future. Most of the time he liked his solitude. Now and then feelings of loneliness would overtake him. His career was hardly worthy of the name. He often thought of Thoreau’s line about most men leading “lives of quiet desperation,” although Thoreau was talking about modern society and not divorced burnouts in particular.

    When he wasn’t anxious, he was bored. Dating women, one after another, didn’t help. He met them in bars, shopping malls, and, for unfathomable reasons, in libraries. Six feet tall, not in bad shape, and usually dressed in khakis with a blue button-down shirt to match his eyes, Jake presented an attractive, reassuring presence.  He used to think the humped bridge on his nose would turn women off, but it seemed more of an advantage.   There was no shortage of available women who, like him, were not looking for anything beyond a hookup.

    At age forty-eight, he knew he was way off track. Too many years gone by, too little to show for it. Dull, aching feelings often robbed him of sleep. Twice during the long nights, fleeting images of him committing suicide appeared, dreamlike.

    Getting help did not interest him. Psychiatrists peddled pills, painkillers for mental cancer. Behavioral therapists, from what he’d heard, usually missed the mark, providing sappy lists of things to do. Like meditation, exercise, diet, visualization. What a steaming crock. He was damned if he was going to see any kind of therapist. He would find a way out of this himself.

    One Saturday before Christmas, Jake was sitting in a bar on South Beach, killing time. He got into a boozy discussion with the guy sitting next to him, a lanky, ponytailed drifter named Paul. The doors were open to the street scene on Ocean Drive, the park, and the beach beyond. Beautiful, self-conscious people. Rattan fan blades rotated indolently overhead.

    The bar talk turned to a fraud which had been reported in the media. The chief financial officer of a jewelry chain had vanished with several hundred thousand dollars. Jake bragged to the ponytail, “It’s really not all that hard to steal if the conditions are right and you know what you’re doing. I could probably steal a couple million dollars from where I work before anybody found out.”

    When his companion asked how, he felt a little rush of pride and smiled.  “Their controls are weak. For example,” Jake said, “I know where a spare key is kept for a supposedly secure area in the warehouse. Lots of valuable stuff in there.”

    Abruptly, he stopped and manufactured a sigh. “Ah, I’m just blowing smoke. I think it takes a rare bird to pull off a corporate fraud, and then what are you going to do when you get caught?”

    An idea formed in his mind. He actually could do what he was saying.

    Jake decided to experiment. He began by entering bogus purchases into the computer. Invoices from Royal Trading, a phony import corporation he set up, were paid by his employer, Globe Forwarding, and no one was asking any questions. Before long he had a hundred thousand in accounts spread among several banks in the name of Royal Import. He decided to put his program into high gear.

    The hoard reached half a million dollars quickly. To think of it made him euphoric. All he had to do was create the phony invoices and receiving documents for products supposedly purchased and delivered to the warehouse, then put them in for payment. In due time, the checks would be issued and be mailed to Royal Trading’s post office box. Every week, go to each bank and make a deposit, then cash a check under $10,000, taking the money to a safe at home.

    He didn’t think much about how his new life was going to work out, except for a fantasy of escape to a non-extraditing country where he could live a rich man.

    ***

    Two months later, Jake walked down the hall to the office of Willis Turek, a fellow department head at Globe Forwarding. Jake stuck his head in and asked, “Lunch?”

    “Does a fat baby fart?” was Willis’ rhetorical reply today. He loved playing the redneck, and was unjustifiably proud of his one-liners.

    Jake and Willis walked on the broken sidewalk, past a few aging warehouses, to Charlie’s. They visited this small Cuban restaurant at least once a week. Charlie’s served the best fried pork chunks and black beans in Miami, despite the restaurant’s American name. As they ate, Willis started talking about the auditor from the bank. “This is her third day here. Do you think there could be a problem?”

    Jake felt a tickle of alarm in the middle of his chest. He coughed. “She does seem to be spending a lot of time on the inventory,” he said. “I heard the bank got burned on a loan to another wholesaler. Maybe that’s why she’s being so careful. I’m sure she’ll leave soon with no issues to report.” Jake’s Ray-Ban aviators slipped down the bridge of his nose. He pushed them up, hoping he looked nonchalant.

    “Well, the boss sure looked like a bulldog chewing on a wasp this morning,” Willis said, “I don’t know what else could be bothering him.” Willis put down his fork and looked intently at Jake. “I’d really hate to think something was going on and I wasn’t included. Are you up to something?”

    “Of course not.” Jake looked out the window at a passing car and forced a grin. “No, it’s simple. We pay seven-fifty a day for the auditor. A bill which is normally fifteen hundred plus expenses is now up to two thousand and change, and possibly more. I believe she’s an independent contractor sent by the bank so she gets the fee. Remember, I used to do this kind of work. If you can get away with stretching it out another day you get more money.”

    “That might be it. Malcolm really doesn’t like to spend the money. He’s so tight, the guest room in his house has a pay smoke alarm. I’ve got a feeling something much bigger is going on, though.” Willis set his jaw and narrowed his eyes, then said, “If you’re involved, you’d better let me in on it. You’d do better to try to cornhole a bobcat than keep me in the dark.”

    “Give me a freaking break. Let’s get back -- I’ve got a ton of calls to return.”

    After lunch, Jake sat in his office and thought about the lunch conversation. It was not like Willis to throw out an accusation, even joking. It didn’t seem possible that anyone could have already figured out what he was doing.

    As he created phony purchases from his own corporation, he had to inflate Globe Forwarding’s inventory to balance the books. There were no signs his manipulations of the inventory had been noticed. But until the auditor was gone his nerves were going to be on edge.

    He knew the bank auditor came every three months, always making a courtesy call a couple days before coming. The tricky part for Jake was physically moving enough customer-owned goods out of their fenced-in security area at night, and into the section for company-owned stock before an audit. This way, it looked like the company actually had the physical inventory to match what was on the books. Then he had to put the goods back after the audit.

    Jake’s phone rang as he mulled this over. It was José Colón, the warehouse manager. “Mr. Foster, I need to talk to you about something confidentially. Could we meet in the parking lot at break time?”

    “Okay, I’ll be there. Will this take long?”

    “No, just a few minutes. My truck is next to your car.”

    What could he want?

    At three o’clock Jake walked toward his old Mercedes and saw José heading toward his own pickup truck. Seeing Jake, José walked over casually and took a cigarette out of his pocket. He lit it and took a deep drag, then looked around the parking lot. José hunched his shoulders and quickly dropped them back down. He said, “I hate to ask you this but I got nobody to turn to. I owe money to some bad people.”  

    José wiped the back of his hand across his brow. “Could you possibly help me with a loan of ten thousand until I can get back on my feet?”

    Jake cleared his throat and said, “José, this is a surprise. I don’t know you well enough to think about doing something like this. From what I’ve heard, you gamble a lot. If your plan is to win it back, I don’t see how anyone would believe you could pay. Isn’t there something else you could do to raise money?”

    José blinked. “Well, I got a few other things going. I wouldn’t need the loan for long.”

    Jake frowned.

    José took another drag on his cigarette and looked at his feet, then into Jake’s eyes. “Listen, Mr. Foster, there is something else I wanted to talk to you about. I been seeing some funny movements of the customer inventory a couple times in the last few months. Do you know why it would go outside the cage for a week or so and then go back in? I can’t find any paperwork on it. I been thinking of talking to the accountants about it, but I don’t want to put anybody into trouble.”

    Jake felt an implosion in his gut. He said, too quickly, “Look, there is no need to involve anyone else. I’ll spend some time on the inventory and maybe you can help me doctor the paperwork. It needs to be in order, if you know what I mean. Would you do this for me?”

    Before José could answer, Jake said, “As far as your financial problem goes…” He hesitated, then continued. “If you give me a few days I believe I can come up with the money for you. The only thing is this would have to be a one-time deal. I just couldn’t do any more.”

    José’s dark eyes flashed, but he smiled and said, “I understand. I think we can work together. Okay if I call you Jake?”

    Back in his office, Jake stared at the white clouds slipping across a cerulean backdrop. In his mind, he replayed José’s question. “Okay if I call you Jake?”

    Colón didn’t know everything, but he knew enough. He acted like a man who thought he was setting the hook on a big fish. Jake knew he had to be thinking about what to do when the inevitable request for more came.

    Jake now had moved a million dollars out of Globe Forwarding, creating a couple other phony companies to avoid attention. He thought his original estimate in the bar conversation was about right. He could probably increase his take to $2 million. But he would have to move faster now.

    As the fraud grew larger, Jake also began creating phony sales to phony customers in order to reduce the ballooning book inventory. He wiped these transactions after each month end, but he knew there were still traces in the computer system. If a knowledgeable person were to look they would find them. He had created a house of cards.

    Jake felt as though he were riding slowly up a mountain incline in a vehicle with bad brakes, knowing the peak and the descent are coming

    He had not anticipated hiding the irregularities would become so difficult. He not only needed to create more computer entries and false documents, he also needed to make the documents consistent with the actual goods being moved into the company part of the warehouse. It was hard to keep track of all this.

    There was another bad sign. Each month, all the department heads sat down to go over the monthly numbers with Malcolm Weaver, the president of the company. Weaver’s manner seemed to have changed. He looked preoccupied but said nothing about what he was thinking. He was quieter, and he now rarely smiled in these meetings even though all the numbers were favorable. Jake wondered if his imagination was working overtime.

    And now Colón was on to his scheme.

    ***

    Jake entered the conference room. The auditor from the bank, Sharon Scott, was a woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, wearing a tailored dark blue business suit. Completing her look was a neat white blouse and an expensive looking scarf in blue, white, and coral, which complemented her coral earrings and reddish-golden hair. Her southern accent sounded rural to Jake. Her oversized glasses made her wide-open eyes look even bigger, and she had a friendly-but-shrewd way about her. Jake automatically disrobed her in his mind and liked what he saw. She wasn’t wearing any rings.

    She flashed a half-smile and said, “Mr. Foster, I just wanted to talk a little bit about how the warehouse inventory is physically controlled. Could you look at this flowchart I made and give me your thoughts?”

    Here we go, Jake thought to himself. The flow chart itself didn’t look like a problem, but if she went about verifying certain control steps, there could be trouble. He needed to alert Colón and get their stories straight. As a former auditor himself, he knew how to do the dance. Checking the accounting controls would take time. It didn’t appear there was any way she could discover the shuffling of inventory on this visit.

    Then it got worse when Sharon said, “Some of the invoices for purchased goods don’t seem to have receiving evidence in the file. I’d also like to go over those with you.”

    His tongue felt too big and there was a salty taste in his mouth. He managed to say, “Sharon, we’ve been having some problems with our file clerk. Let me take a list of the invoices and do some research. I should have what you need tomorrow morning.”  She looked at him, thinking. Then she nodded. She smiled as she met his eye and handed him a card. She said, “Here’s my cell phone number. Please call if you think of anything at all we should discuss.”

     Jake looked at her face for a signal. Was she flirting? Or was she wondering what he would come up with in the morning. She had something on her mind, for sure.

    He was going to have to fabricate some receiving documents in a hurry. The irony was he had already done so, but the clerk had put them who-knows-where. Anything he produced now was going to get extra attention, so he needed to make the new documents very convincing.

    Jake believed he could scramble and keep a lid on things for now, but he was getting cornered. He could feel it.