The rest of the day seemed a waste of time. After lunch, Brian called Geoff, Francoise, the other accountant Sue, and Scott into his office to discuss month-end. Mainly everyone sat and listened to Brian, nodded and agreed, and made a few notes. Scott was asked to shadow Geoff and Sue at different times, as he was to take over some of their duties, or at least be able to cover for them and vice-versa.
He did not say anything to Francoise, all she had to do was sit there and listen.
Eventually he sent them all away. Outside, Scott cornered Geoff.
“I’ve been looking at that intercompany account you asked me to go over.”
“Oh yes, what do you think?”
“There’s something fishy going on alright. Why did you ask me to look at it?”
“It’s all way too clean. Never any balances at the end of the month, so nothing on the balance sheet to worry the auditors.”
“That was exactly what I was thinking,” Scott replied. “And all of the payments are made very promptly. Have you had a look at any of the documents?”
“No.” He confessed. “I’ve only looked at the journal entries. Just seems way to clean.”
“There’s something about the purchase ledger invoices that doesn’t ring true.” Scott wasn’t sure about the point he was making, but he thought if he ran it past Geoff something might jump out at him. “They’re too pristine. No torn corners or creases, they don’t look like they’ve been through the post or anything.”
“I suppose they could have been sent in large envelopes, so that they did not need to be folded, but even then, knowing what the post is like, some are bound to be a bit creased.”
“I guess they could have been faxed, but all the faxes we receive are black and white, not colour, and these had the logo in full colour.”
“Maybe they were sent electronically, as PDF files, and then printed off by the person who received them.”
“That does seem the most likely answer.” Scott agreed.
“Nice try!” He said. “Keep digging.”
He spent the rest of the day trying to look at other work, but nothing seemed to be going in. Eventually he found himself looking at web sites to try and find out something about the chicken. He came across a site that showed different types of domestic birds. He was surprised to find that he felt quite guilty, as though he was doing something sneaky or dodgy, like looking at porn sites.
However, there she was, or one very like her, on his screen. According to this web site the breed was called ‘Silky’. It said that they made good garden pets, but were not good layers if you wanted to keep them for the eggs. They were very broody, and if they were not allowed to keep their eggs through to hatching, eventually they stopped laying. So, he sat with a picture of a hen just like Francoise on his screen, deep in thought when Geoff came up behind him.
“Is that what you’re into?” He laughed, giving Scott a push in the back before he could close the screen. “Like a bit of leg eh?”
Logging off, Scott shut down his p.c. and went home. He had not mentioned anything to Toni about his first day beyond saying that everything was “Fine”. He talked about the offices more than the people and had said nothing about the strange goings on. It was time to put that right and see how she reacted.
It was normal for Toni to be in first, but today was one of those exceptions. She must have still been seeing a client or preparing some work with her assistant, so he took the opportunity to do the cooking. This was something he enjoyed, but so did Toni, and she tended to monopolise the kitchen.
Dinner was keeping warm on the top of the cooker when Toni arrived home. They kissed, and he held her for a minute, looking into her beautiful eyes. “I’ve got something to tell you.” He said, as they separated and she went off to the bedroom to change.
“Oh great! That’ll make a nice change.” She called back to him from the bedroom. “It’ll save me from having to do all the talking.” She liked to poke fun, but there was usually a more serious message behind her light-hearted quips.
When they sat down to eat Scott began. “You’ll never guess who, or rather WHAT I’m working with.”
“What do you mean ‘what’?” She replied. “Is it some sort of robot or something?”
“No, someone called Francoise.”
She looked at him for a moment before replying. “French! Are you telling me you don’t like having to work with someone who’s French? I thought you would have liked a nice French lady with a sexy accent!”
“Not exactly!” He wondered how she would react, so he decided not to keep her guessing any longer. “She is French, supposedly, but I haven’t heard her speak yet.” She was already starting to look a bit surprised. “She is a chicken, she works for the parent company and does not speak much English.”
“What do you mean a chicken?” She was starting to find it funny, but still did not fully understand. “Are you going on about the French being cheese eating surrender monkeys again?”
“No, I mean a real live chicken, a hen, poultry, two legs, wings and feathers.”
She laughed, “No way!”
“Oh yes! And I nearly got into trouble for calling her a chicken. They have a zero tolerance policy on racism and any prejudices of any kind, and I put my big foot in it by not treating her like a real person.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” But she could see from his face that he wasn’t. “That’s just too weird for words. I can’t wait to tell other people. What does it do?”
“She.” He reminded her, and immediately felt stupid. “I have to work with her, sort of, because she is one of the accountants. Fortunately it seems we won’t have to work too closely, but everyone else accepts her as a real person. She has her own desk, a computer, a chair and everything. She pecks at the keyboard, and seems to know how to work things.”
“I’ve got to see this. How wonderful!” He was glad she seemed as bemused as he was. He had started to believe that he was going mad or something.
They talked more about it as the evening went on. Toni remained beautifully incredulous, and he was actually relieved that she found it difficult to believe. He might normally have been a bit put out if she had carried on for so long. As it was, it was great to be able to talk freely about the situation and not feel that he was in any way guilty of anything.
The next day he felt so much more able to deal with things. The discussion with Toni had left him feeling normal again. Whatever happened at work, he would be able to deal with it, he just had to approach things with caution.
Francoise and Geoff were both there when he arrived, so after turning on his p.c. and making some tea he set about investigating the intercompany account a little further. This time he pulled out the sales ledger invoices. These proved to be much simpler than the purchase ledger side. There was a regular monthly invoice from them to Blue Farm Research, charging them for head office services. The amounts did not vary much, but were for management charges, marketing activities and some expenses incurred on their behalf.
He closed the file, Francoise was looking at him for a change, rather than he at her. He got up and went to put the file back on the shelf, and said a cheery “Good morning” to her as he passed. She did not reply (nothing unusual there then), but watched him intently as he replaced the file, and went back to his desk. He wasn’t sure how much longer she carried on watching, but it was making him feel uncomfortable. Eventually he gave up trying to ignore her, so picked up his mug and went off to get some more tea, simply to break her stare. As he turned to go into the kitchen, he saw Francoise scurrying across the office towards his desk. He left her to it and went into the kitchen. With his keyboard locked there was nothing there for her to see.
He made the tea and paused in the kitchen to drink it. People came and went, and he chatted briefly to them as they poured, sweetened and stirred. Eventually, he finished his tea and headed back towards his desk. Debbie caught him as he passed HR.
“What were you doing in there, growing the tea?” She asked. “I was waiting for you to come out.”
“I’m sorry.” He said. “I was just having a break, thinking about a problem.”
“I wanted to ask you something. I support Earth Mates, they are similar to Friends of the Earth, and I’m going to a meeting this evening, just wondered if you wanted to come along?”
“Ooh!” He tried to sound interested but hesitated, this was not really his thing. He liked Friends of the Earth, believed in their aims and most of their methods, but this was too much in the way of politics for his blood. “Sounds more like some sort of dating site, are you a member, or what’s the deal?”
“Well, yes, it was just an idea. I wondered if you felt as strongly about looking after the planet as you do about racism.”
He was reluctant to get too close, but found himself saying “OK, as long as you promise me I won’t be indoctrinated.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that. It’s far more general, talking about forthcoming events and listening to peoples’ ideas.”
That didn’t sound too bad, so he found himself asking, “Where is the meeting, and what time shall I meet you?”
“It’s at a village hall near where you live. As I’ve got to travel the furthest, my car will already be warmed up, I’ll pick you up around seven. Is that OK?”
He agreed that would be fine.
When he got back to his desk he dropped Toni a text to say he’d be going out after supper. She asked what time and he replied, adding that he loved her.
He woke up his p.c. and checked his e-mails. Nothing exciting. Geoff and Grace had both sent him different viral e-mails, Geoff’s was a straight forward joke about women drivers, whilst Grace’s was a video clip of someone performing an amazing set of tricks on a stunt bike. He filed both away in a separate folder, with the intention of forwarding them to his own friends when he had put their addresses on his work p.c.
A small white feather drifted out from under his keyboard on the very light breezes from the air conditioning. He picked it up and looked over at Francoise. She was not looking his way, but was concentrating on her screen. He could make out the Blue Farm logo on the top of the document she had open, but that was all he could see. So, she had been at his desk, but what was she interested in?
He was beginning to feel sure that there was something fishy about the Blue Farm subsidiary. The difficulty would be finding out what, and how Francoise was involved. He was going to have to start asking questions, but did not want to do that in the office with Francoise so close.
The evening with Debbie might offer him an opportunity, but HR have little to do with that side of the business.
The rest of the day passed quietly and he got home to find Toni preparing dinner. They ate and chatted about her day and one of her customers who seemed to be expecting far more than they were prepared to pay for. His day, fortunately, was secondary, but he explained about the meeting of Earth Mates.
She asked about Debbie, he answered as honestly as he could, missing out the part where she had been coming on to him. Toni did not easily get jealous, and he had never given her any reason to be. If she was now, she didn’t show it.
“If the poor girl is looking for a sugar daddy, she’s not going to get much from you!” She joked, and he joked back about not needing such complications.
The door bell rang soon after they’d finished eating. Debbie stood there with her car keys in her hand, ready to get going.
“Come in for a minute, I’ll get my coat.”
She hopped in and he closed the door behind her. Her attire was understated, she still looked attractive, but the make-up was less obvious than what she wore to work. She was wearing jeans with a light coloured rain coat over, belted to emphasize her figure.
While he was fetching his coat and shoes Toni came to the door and introduced herself. Both women were laughing and joking when he returned. He said goodbye to Toni, and while they cuddled briefly, she whispered in his ear. “She’s very nice, good luck!” He frowned but she was giving him a big smile.
Scott was pleasantly surprised by the meeting of Earth Mates. There was no indoctrination, though one or two people seemed very interested in their new member (as that’s how he was perceived), and wanted to know what he did for a living and had he been on any marches etc. He’d always been a believer in their cause, but never been prepared to stand up and be counted. This was probably the most radical thing he’d ever done in his adult life. The meeting was fairly short, so when it finished he and Debbie joined some of her friends for a drink at the pub in the village. He willingly agreed as this might be the perfect opportunity to ask her about the Blue Farm subsidiary.
Inside the pub Scott bought a round of drinks . The friends were a couple about Debbie’s age, but being with younger people like this did not bother Scott. He was expecting much of the talk to be about Earth Mates, but apart from a brief period at the beginning the topic of conversation varied between what was going on at work, to who they supported or loathed on X-factor. After stating quite definitely that he did not watch the program Scott found himself nodding in agreement with much of what was being said, and discovered he knew a lot more about it than he would otherwise have admitted.
“Only the blonde one can sing.” One of them was slating the only remaining group. “The others are just making up the numbers and trying to look sexy.”
“They can all sing, but Joel is the lead-singer and the kids love them because they have energy and dress the same.”
“They’re favourites to win, but I like Daniel.” One of the women was referring to a male singer with long hair.
“Why does he carry that guitar if he’s not going to play it?” Scott asked.
“He played it in the auditions.” She reminded him.
“So, is he still wearing the same pants and trousers too?”
“Why would he be wearing the same pants and trousers?”
“Because he wore them at the audition.”
The others chose to ignore him and the discussion continued.
An hour passed, they bought more drinks and the conversation had moved on, when a rather scruffy looking man came over to their table.
“Watcha!” he said. “’Scuse me.” And he leant over and said something quietly into Debbie’s ear. He straightened up and Debbie rose from her seat.
“Won’t be long” she said to everyone, and then more quietly to Scott. “Some of my other friends.” The scruffy man led Debbie to a small group of similarly untidy young people who were gathered around a quiz machine in another corner of the bar. Because of their scruffy appearance and a few piercings, Scott felt uneasy. They seemed to be in fairly intense discussions. Though their voices were not raised, there was a lot of arm waving and gesturing. The scruffy individual who had come over to their group and dragged Debbie away seemed to be controlling the discussion. One minute he was calming the others down, pressing down an invisible balloon with open hands, and then a few minutes later he was leaning into the middle of the group and clenching his fist.
Scott got up from his seat and made his excuses, heading off towards the toilets. The scruffy group were on the opposite side of the pub to the toilets, but in order to complete his ruse he felt he had to go through the ‘Gents’ door. But, rather than hanging around in the door way to the toilets (which he thought may have looked somewhat suspicious) he decided to avail himself of the facilities.
A rather drunk elderly gentleman had just finished at the urinals.
“’Scuse me, d’you ‘af the time?”
“Sure.” Scot said, looking at his watch. “It’s just after nine.”
The drunken man made an exaggerated effort to look at his own watch. “So’t is! Last bus leaves shoon.” Swaying gently, he made his way towards the door.
Scott went over to the furthest urinal and started to spray the porcelain.
“Ish the watershed, you know.” The man was still at the door. Scott wasn’t sure whether to acknowledge this new comment, or just ignore it, but the man persisted. “After nine, they can show ‘n’thing.”
Under different circumstances Scott may have engaged in polite banter, but decided that the opportunity for a meaningful discussion was not promising.
“’S all crap!” The man continued while Scott tried to shake off the last few drops. “I’m a Shelebrity, you’re fired! Not in my day. I’d leave ‘em all in the shungle. Ant and bloody Dec ‘em. See who wants to be who’s ‘prentice after they’ve fought the fuggin’ Russians.”
“We didn’t fight the Russians.” Scott corrected as he zipped up and crossed to the wash basins.
“Bloody cowards. Should’ve known. Too lazy to get job eh?” Scott couldn’t follow how the one led to the other, so kept quiet while he washed his hands.
“Should put ‘em in the army. That’s what your lot need. Dishipline! No respec’ for yoz elders.” The man paused, seemed to lose the thread of what he was saying, not that Scott could follow it if there was one.
The old man was blocking the door. “Did you have a bus to catch?” Scott Prompted.
“Yesh, the ninety two, how’d you know, ish that yours too?”
“After you.” Scott motioned to allow the man to go first, then slowly followed the ponderously swaying man back into the bar area.
On his way out, he went the other way round the bar, and approached Debbie and her friends from the far side. It was difficult to hear what was being said since they were talking in hushed tones. He edged closer and heard the scruffy guy say “Saturday night”, and then it sounded like “What-on”, but he knew it wasn’t, and he stood there momentarily transfixed. Recovering, he turned round to go back round the bar, but was too late.
“Scott!” It was Debbie, she had seen him, so he quickly turned back and put a big smile on his face. “Come here.” She said. “I’d like you to meet some friends.” He was virtually there anyway, so obliged and extended a hand to the scruffy guy, who had stepped forward from the others.
“I’m Scott,” he said, “I’ve just started working with Debbie.”
“Nice ta meet ya. I’m Dave.” He took Scott’s hand and shook it, holding firmly and not letting go while he studied his face, their hands moving in slow motion. “So ya’ve not known Debbie long then?” Up close, his scruffy appearance was due to the sum of various elements. Long untidy hair, ear-rings, frayed jeans and a loose un-ironed shirt all contributed.
“No, not long at all. She’s helping me settle in, but I think this goes beyond the call of duty.”
“ ’At’s our Debbie, a real trooper.” He introduced Scott to the other four members of the troop, but Scott’s mind was still on other things. He did not remember a single name, but said hello to each one in turn, looking at them, but not really seeing any of them.
The word he had heard a minute earlier, it hadn’t been “What-on”, it was “Watton”, and, assuming he hadn’t misheard it, that was significant. He was stuck in the middle of this little band, but right now he just wanted to go somewhere where he could think, and try to make sense of things.
Maybe Debbie noticed his discomfort, or maybe it was time to be moving on, but he was relieved when she said “thanks Dave. We’d better get back to our other friends, or they’ll think we’ve abandoned them.” They said brief goodbyes, and moved off. After no more than half a dozen steps, He took Debbie by the arm and leaned close.
“Do you mind if we go soon? It’s been a long day.” He left it at that, but she didn’t need any more explanation.
They returned to their table and finished their drinks. Debbie was kind enough to make her excuses by saying she was tired and had to drop Scott on her way home. As they left the pub they had to struggle past the old drunk gentleman who held the door, preventing them from passing while he inspected their faces.
“Don’t trust thish one, wouldn’t fight the Russians!” He released the door, and they made their escape.
“Don’t ask, just a friend I made in the toilets. Cheers for making the excuses. You could have blamed me rather than saying you were tired. I wouldn’t have minded.”
“I was tired too.” She gave him a big smile and unlocked the car. They got in, pulled their seat belts around them, and she started the car. “Do you often make friends in the toilets?”
“He wanted to know the time.”
“What did that have to do with Russians?”
“I have no idea, I think he had a bus to catch, and somehow the conversation just developed.”
“Well, if your mind can hop from a singer’s guitar to his underwear, I guess anything’s possible.”
“Who are Dave and his mates?” Scott changed the subject, and by way of explanation, “I’m not sure I liked them particularly. You’re other friends are really nice though!”
She laughed. “I used to go to school with Dave, Suz and Jez. They’re a bit weird, always were, but have become more so recently. I didn’t know the other two until about a year ago, but Dave seems to like them. They’re harmless enough, full of bull-shit, always making plans about bringing down the government or stuff, but never really do anything. I think they’re just resentful of society.”
“That doesn’t sound that harmless to me. How do you fit in?”
“I think Dave fancies me. It’s as though he includes me because I represent the type of business he is trying to bring down, and I’m his first success. It’s strange really, we both went to the same school, came from the same area, shared similar beliefs, but he seems to be going in one direction while I’m going in another. ”
Scott was desperate to start talking about Blue Farm, but was now not sure if Debbie was the right person to be asking. The word or name he had overheard in the pub suggested she might know too much. Watton was the name of a small town in Norfolk. It was also the name of the small town in Norfolk where Blue Farm Research were based. Why had Debbie’s friends been talking about Watton, and did it really relate to Blue Farm, or was it just a coincidence?
He decided to gamble. “I was doing some reconciliation work relating to our intercompany accounts.” He began. “And, I came across a subsidiary of the parent company that is also based here in the UK. I wondered if you knew anything about them.”
“Hey! I was hoping we had forgotten about work.” She seemed genuinely disappointed. “Do we have to discuss this now?”
He needed to see what she knew. “Please, it’s important. I would have discussed this at work, but I didn’t want anyone else from work to know in case they’re involved.”
“That sounds a bit cloak and dagger, but if you must. I don’t know much about the accounts, and even less about some of the other subsidiaries, but I’ll help if I can. What are they called?”
“Blue Farm Research.”.
She didn’t slam on the brakes or crash the car, but there was a definite reaction. Her foot lifted off the accelerator while she thought what to do, but she kept looking straight ahead. She recovered quickly, but had not been expecting his answer. It was a couple of seconds before she regained her composure and glanced over. “Why are you interested in them?”
“I don’t know really, there’s something fishy about the accounts, but I can’t put my finger on exactly what.”
She pondered his answer before replying. “I’m not sure I know anything that can help you. They are a research business with a laboratory in Norfolk. They do research in medical sciences, but surely you could quite easily find out all that sort of thing on the internet?”
She was right. What she had said was of no real help, and was no more than he’d be able to look up for himself. He had learnt more from the way she had answered than from what she had said. Still, he was disappointed. He hadn’t planned this conversation very well, and had been thrown off balance by what he had heard earlier in the pub. He was not sure how far he should push things right now, but ventured a little further anyway.
“I was hoping that, since you’d been working for the company for a lot longer than me, you may have heard something unofficial. You know, something on the grape vine, a scandal or rumours of some sort.”
“I don’t know.” She hesitated. “Are you sure you’re an accountant and not a detective?”
This sounded more promising, though she was obviously reluctant to share what she knew, so soon. He didn’t know how to convince her, and if she was involved in it too then she’d be even less likely to tell him. He decided to play it casual. “It probably wouldn’t help anyway. I don’t even know for sure if there’s something going on. I’d hate to find that Mr Big has thrown you into a pool full of sharks for telling me something. And, I certainly don’t want whatever it might be to turn us into enemies.”
“Don’t vorry Mr Bond, I can tek care of myself.” She said in a very fake Russian accent. They had just reached his house, so she stopped the car in front of their neighbour’s house.
“I think you’re really nice.” This was obviously the end of the discussion on Blue Farm. He allowed her to carry on, rather than responding to her compliment, still hoping she might tell him a bit more. “Perhaps you’d like to come to another meeting sometime?” She leant over and gave him a proper kiss on the cheek, certainly no air-kiss.
His hand went to the side of his face where she had kissed him, an involuntary movement that he regretted immediately because it made him feel somewhat stupid. He rubbed his cheek nonchalantly. She giggled at his embarrassment and smiled beautifully.
He was now way out of his depth, sitting in a car at night, alone with a beautiful woman, who, unbelievably, found him attractive. It was incredibly tempting to respond with a more amorous kiss. But he wouldn’t, and couldn’t. He was afraid of doing anything to upset his current relationship with Toni.
Finally she said, “I’d ask you to invite me in for a coffee, but I don’t think your girlfriend would approve.” She bit her lip and looked at him sideways, teasing him to respond.
He said “See you tomorrow,” and got out of the car. Phew! He felt excitement, fear, elation, his heart was pounding. The night air was cold, and immediately penetrated his damp shirt where he must have been sweating. He waved to her as she drove off down the road, and walked slowly to his front door, not too sure what he was going to tell Toni. Not quite true, he was definitely not going to say anything about the kiss, or Debbie’s obvious advances. He didn’t want Toni to be worried, and as long as he could control the situation, there was no need. However, the image of Debbie’s beautiful face when she gave him the come-on was very difficult to put out of his mind.
Toni was still up when he got in. She didn’t ask anything about the meeting, but he was keen to tell her about the coincidence of over-hearing the word ‘Watton’. She was more sceptical.
“Oh, come on! It’s a bit weak, one word, in a busy pub, after a couple of drinks. You probably thought you heard it because it was on your mind – subconsciously, you know what I mean.”
“No, I’m sure. There aren’t too many words that sound like Watton.”
“Well, there’s ‘gotten’ if you include slang, or ‘forgotten’, or ‘rotten’ or..”
“You forgot bottom.” He interrupted.
“Funny! “ She slapped his. “But I’m being serious. So, what are you going to do next?”
“I’ll see what happens at work tomorrow. Other than that, I really don’t know.”
He was beginning to feel like some sort of sleuth, but just about all of what had happened so far had been happening to him, he was just stumbling into everything. He had not done anything clever to find out anything, and when he really thought about it, he had found out nothing anyway. Accounts that were too clean, a chicken that didn’t like him, and a word that he had over-heard in a pub from someone who was only remotely connected to the other two things, it certainly didn’t add up to much. If he were a detective, he’d have to do a lot better than that.
No wonder Toni was sceptical. He was so pleased to be able to discuss things with her. She was always so level headed and honest. He believed that he could probably have told her about Debbie’s advances, and she would have rationalised it in her wonderfully frank and open way. He knew he was really lucky to have her, and he also knew he wouldn’t let Debbie get any closer and risk losing her.
They went to bed, but he had all these things going round in his head. Sleep was difficult for the second night running.