I am an accountant. My job is to make sense of other people’s money. Money coming in and money going out. I try to squeeze more dollars into my client’s lives.
Well, really, that’s not exactly true. I try to find loop-holes to stretch their money further, creatively juggling figures, which is not the same thing. I take what they have and do what I can to turn offsets into wealth. I am Rumplestitsken spinning hay into gold. Yes, I am a financial alchemist. Although I deal all day with numbers, red and blue and lines, neatly ruled lines, there is an intimacy between me and my clients. When people talk of romance, they think of two people sharing physical nurturing but I nurture the most intimate part of their external lives – their money. I find it impossible not to feel a deep bond, a sultry connection as I push laundry deductions and finger through tattered receipts. The receipts tell me a secret story, sharing information almost as clandestine as one might share with a doctor. I know things about my clients that their own families don’t know. But I am an accountant and a good one. I am discreet. I never judge.
You’d be surprised the things I see. Men, women, old and young. I’ve written off huge payments to brothels as professional stress management tutorials. Lunches. Helicopter rides. It’s all in a day’s work. Most of my clients are corporate types but I also look after young teenagers making six dollars fifty at McDonalds while holding down a second job pushing trolleys up at Coles.
My favourite client is Mrs Jenkins. She’s a frail old woman with violet hair and heavily frilled coats. Her estate is extensive and her children, an ungrateful mob of vultures, can’t wait for her to die. Her investments are platinum and run like well-oiled gears. She has investment brokers and other financial worker ants doing her business but she likes to catch a taxi to see me about once a month and she still gets me to lodge her tax statements. Mrs Jenkins is just lonely and likes to pop in for a free cup of tea and some conversation and I look forward to her visits and her stories. She is a most delightful octogenarian. Some other people come only the once to me to ask me questions. They want to do their own financial management and want a few pointers. I charge an hourly fee to give them some starter tips.
It’s not rocket science. It just takes a level head and a good grasp of logical numerical balance.
Usually my clients are looking to me to save them money. Everyone wants more of it in their pockets and although I don’t subscribe to that old adage that says money is the root of all evil, I have known some unsalubrious types who think nothing of breaking the law if they, or rather I, can get away with it. I’ve stretched the truth a little in my time (the brothel write-off for example) but it’s only a little elastication….a little white lie…not something that stretches to the point of snapping with someone ending up in prison.
I do not generally take on any new clients these days. I don’t advertise. My books are full and I have a good reputation. I work from home and that suits me. I have a little office down the driveway, in the renovated garage. My husband parks the car under a blue canvas pagoda on the other side of the house. I claimed the renovations of course so it cost nothing. I sit at my desk, a large purple tibouchina flowering outside the window, and listen to the burble of the creek that runs down behind our house. The sound of water soothes me and keeps me calm and focused. I keep an hour free for lunch every day which I share with Gribble, our cat. My life is easy, regimented and I am a content woman.
Working days are busy, starting and nine and finishing at six. The clients appear with their financial requests; some simple tax returns, others with more complicated business matters. The only way I will take on a new client is through a recommendation from a current one that I trust. I once upon a time had a vineyard owner as a client who turned out to be very shady and almost cost me my licence to practice. He is now in prison and I’ve been wary, nervous of new clients, ever since.
When the phone rang one day, announcing a potential new client who’d been given my number by Mrs Jenkins, I had no hesitation in finding him a space in my appointment book. He asked for a double-length consultation. I gave him a time and the address. First-timers get a full explanation of how to find me. I told him to look for a stretch of pines on the main road. He would find Number 137 painted on a white mail-box in faded black. The gravel road winds for half a kilometre before you come to the house, I told him and instructed him to park on the grass before walking between the rose-beds that line the last of the narrower gravel path leading down to the pale, lemon-painted garage out the back.
He was the last appointment of the day and I heard his crunching footsteps before the knock came at the door and I went to answer it.
“Mr Darnton?” I smiled.
He looked nervous but some people are just naturally shy when meeting a new person for the first time. I thought nothing of it. I took him across the room and indicated that he should sit in the leather wing-back chair facing my desk. It’s a comfortable room with nice art-work on the walls and pretty floral curtains. I tried to steer as far away from professional or clinical as I could. Mr Darnton refused my offer of tea or coffee.
He seemed to be in a hurry.
“I want you to sort these papers out. My finances are in a mess. I’ve got bank statements and some legal papers about an inheritance I’ve just received.”
He was short and sharp, not looking me in the eye. I nodded as he pushed a bulging manila folder across the desk to me. His fingers were long, thin and pale with a faint dusting of dark, wiry hair about his wrist, like a cuff.
“It’s April now,” I said. “Are you wanting me to just put things in order in anticipation of your taxation lodgement?”
“Yes,” he said hurriedly. “I work at the hospital as a janitor and I’m just casual and it’s always been simple enough for me to do it all online, but I’ve got this money and I wanted to know how to manage it. You know, put it in investment portfolios or high-interest accounts or something. I don’t really know anything about all that.”
He had, as it turned out, a great deal of money. Mr Darnton had been left a sizeable estate including a house and over three million dollars.
He sat there for an hour, answering my questions with as few words as possible. I opened up a new file for him on the computer and typed in his details, name, address, tax file number and then began to do a breakdown of his financials. He made the modest amount of somewhere between thirty and thirty-six thousand a year in his job at the hospital.
“This is a very large inheritance,” I smiled up at him. ‘I’ll get you a list of good investment opportunities. It’s quite a windfall although obviously I am very sorry for your loss.
Inheritances are always gifts that come with some measure of grief, yes?”
I watched his face, his dark small eyes. I felt a chill. I had been so busy fussing through the file in front of me, flipping through crumpled tax returns covered in tea stains and bank statements and letters from Edna Winter’s estate that I’d not taken much notice of the man in
the chair opposite me. I put him at fifty. He had a shiny pate with curtains of lank brown hair mantled above his ears. As I looked at him on the other side of the desk, his jaw set like concrete, his eyes so black in an otherwise sepia head, I felt uneasy. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on. My fingers drummed at the papers beneath them and I had the overwhelming feeling that there was something unsavoury about the whole business.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Edna will be missed. She was an aunt. Ninety-three.”
Looking back into those matt eyes, I saw not a glimmer of grief. I saw nothing at all. His eyes were as unyielding and unfathomable as a stagnant puddle in the depths of a cold forest.
He paid me in cash for my consultation, made another one for a week’s time and left the file with me. Mr Darnton walked with his arms cemented to his sides and I watched from my doorway as his old worn sneakers ground out his steps back toward an old orange Mazda. He did not look back.
The next day I had a morning appointment with one of my favourite clients. The woman ran an organic produce delivery service in our town. She always brought me a box of fruit and vegetables as a gift every time she came to see me which was about once a month.
“There are some real doozies in there this time,” she enthused in her usual bubbly squeak, “Pomegranates and cherries.”
Shelly always made me laugh and chatted away while I entered all her scribbled financial data and went through her messy books. She did nothing on a computer, didn’t even own one, and so she carried everything, her cheque butts, receipts and invoices in a shoe-box. This she always unceremoniously dumped onto my desk like a stash of hoarded rubbish. I wanted to tell Shelly about the stiff, strange man in the baggy suit with old runners who’d just inherited a small fortune but I never discussed one client with another. That would have been unprofessional. I wondered about Mr Darnton and didn’t really look forward to his return but return he did.
It took some weeks to begin to put his finances in order. I have a thing with people. I’m good at reading them. At first it was just their accounts and receipts and expenses that filled in the story for me but over the years I’ve managed to get quite good at getting a feel for people by sitting and talking to them. I’ve had all types come through my office. Mr Darnton spoke very little, rarely looked me in the eyes and when he did, it felt cold and made my belly turn.
I was always glad and felt a measure of relief when he left and I never felt quite at ease until the tail light disappeared around the pines.
MURDER was the headline emblazoned on the front page of the free local newspaper that is thrown haphazardly at my mailbox once a week by a lunatic in a white van that does donuts on the muddy verge and drifts like a mad-man along the road on wet days. I picked it up and put the elastic band in my pocket, unfolding the thing, reading it as I walked back down the driveway.
I usually steer away from local news. Living in a small town means there is a fine line between news and gossip. Most of what I read in the paper is tripe that belongs in house-wife banter over the back fence not in newsprint so I rarely look at it. A headline blaring MURDER however, tempts one to a further reading.
It seemed that after a brief investigation, the police had decided that Marjory Bloxom, an elderly woman who lived alone in town, had been murdered in her own bed. I live with my husband, I’m not what you’d call elderly, although some days I feel it, but something troubled me about this news report and the phantasm of an unnamed uneasiness took hold of my brain. It made me sick to the stomach.
I looked at the grainy picture of the smiling old woman. It wasn’t familiar. The old woman had never been a client and her name was not bringing up any alarm bells. Marjory Bloxom looked like any other talcum-powdered old woman in town. The autopsy showed that she had been smothered. It was a horrible way for anyone to go but I looked at the photograph and imagined the sheer terror the old woman would have experienced in her final moments of struggle. I thought of my elderly client, Mrs Jenkins. The police suspected the motive was theft, as relatives believed the woman had a stash of cash in her bedroom and a wardrobe appeared to have been jimmied open. Again, I thought of Mrs Jenkins and her millions.
I don’t read crime thrillers and I have a distaste for news stories that relate human stories at their worst. Murder. Terrorism. Natural disasters. Kids getting coward punched. I know it goes on but I feel there should be more balanced reporting of the news. Good things happen too, don’t they? Surely they do. I don’t like crime and I don’t like criminals. I’ve met a few over the years and they are all cool and shifty, almost reptilian. I’ve certainly done some creative accounting in my time, gently prising open loopholes to make them a little wider and reclassifying expenses with the skill of an award-winning fiction writer but I don’t see giving Sally Klein or Shelly McKenzie a few extra dollars on their return so that they can buy their kids new school shoes is criminal. Not in the real sense of the word. Some crimes, like jay- walking, are just silly. But murder, that’s a whole different story and that night I fell asleep with uneasy thoughts of Marjory Bloxom milling through my dreams, her face morphing into Mrs Jenkins.
Mr Darnton turned up early to his next appointment, startling me as he knocked with uncharacteristic ferocity. His knock was urgent and I opened the door to see that the man was wet with rain. His thinning hair was plastered to his face, those black-currant eyes blaring out of a waxy, damp face.
He took off his jacket and left it hanging on the hook outside and came inside and sat down.
“I had a win at the casino up in the city last week,” he told me. “Quite a lot. Seventy-two thousand. Just between you and me, should I keep that in cash because if I deposit in the bank…”
“Yes,” I interrupted, not picking him for a gambler, well not more than an annual tippler at the Melbourne Cup at best. “Any deposit over ten thousand will trigger an alert to the taxation department.”
“I’m wanting to go overseas,” Mr Darnton told me and as he tapped his long, white fingers on the desk, noticed that his hands bore streaks of scratches. “As soon as possible. I’ll want to transfer funds to an overseas bank. I want to move to Switzerland. I like the cold. How would I take that much cash? Could I convert it by buying something. Jewellery or something?”
“Your hands,” I frowned. “What have you done to yourself? That looks nasty.”
“Oh, damn rose-bushes,” he grinned with a smile that lit his gaunt face up like a Halloween skeleton. “Spent the weekend cutting a wild bush back. Should have worn gloves, I suppose.”
I looked at him. Tending roses was my hobby, no, it was my passion. The scents, sometimes delicate, sometimes pungent, were something I had come to love and I cherished my roses like children. I had them billowing over the trellis near the pool, they rambled over the back shed and stood like sensual sentries along the gravel path to my door. I knew how painful a barb could be but to have cut roses while letting your hands be shredded sounded insane.
Roses, like musical notes in a melody, have different shades and tones of scents throughout the day, from fruity to spicy to honeyed musk. I looked at the two in a vase on my desk and back to Mr Darnton’s hands.
“Mrs Jenkins gave you my number, yes?” I asked. “How is she? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She looked a little paler than usual last time I saw her,” he said. “And how do you know her?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“I met her husband in the hospital. He died there last year, you know. I just look in on her sometimes. Just to check up on her.”
I looked up at him over my glasses, pursed my lips and nodded while inside I had a gut full of nausea. His words felt like wet fish skin. They lacked any warmth at all.
I’d almost finished with his financial portfolio. Everything was in order. But my long night of tossing and turning about the murder of the Bloxom woman had begun to mess with my head. I had an idea brewing. I knew it might be ungrounded and I didn’t want to create a drama where there was none. I hadn’t even mentioned it to my husband. He would have laughed at me. But the thought niggled and jiggled inside and would not let up.
“I’ve had a long day,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I’m having a cup of tea. Please join me for one. I insist.”
He tipped his head in thought much like a lizard might and then gave a single nod. “White. Two sugars.”
Over tea, I regarded him. He was a beige man. He dressed in paper-bag clothes and the only things that weren’t brown or a shade thereof were his coal-button eyes. His tawny, drab clothes hung loosely from coat-hanger shoulders. I’m an agreeable sort of person but I could not like Mr Darnton. He was without any redeeming features. While we drank tea, I got him to flip through the print-outs I had showing his financials in a clear and organised manner. He read, head down. I did some research on the computer, making sure it turned away from him so he could not see the screen.
I typed in the name Edna Winters. This was the aunt who had left him the fortune. I got a full page of hits. Edna Winters had died suddenly in her sleep after returning home from a long stint in hospital. She had been a wealthy widow with no family and she had left it all to a local unnamed beneficiary. I shot a glance up at my client who was squinting, reading through the spreadsheets. An aunt, he’d said. No family, the media said. I wondered whether he had met her at the local hospital where he worked. A picture was forming in my head.
I typed in the words Marjory Bloxom and was inundated with sites. There were lots of news stories about the murdered woman. I opened a reputable source, a national news carrier, as opposed to our local rag that was strung loosely together with words penned by the world’s worst excuse for journalists. I read, pushing my spectacles up my nose, peering forward. The woman had had a fall the previous year and had spent time recuperating in the hospital but had made a full recovery and was magnificently healthy according to her bereaved family which was why they had insisted on an autopsy. The story went on to say that her children believed the woman had somewhere in the vicinity of seventy-thousand dollars tucked away in a box in her room as she had been suspicious of banks. That was missing.
I gasped and disguised it with a fake cough. My face prickled and my mouth went dry.
The last line of the article caught me like a fish hook, snaring me into wide-eyed alarm. The police had lifted a fingerprint from the scene but had not been able to match it to any in their database.
All I could think of was that this eel of a man was regularly stopping in to check on Mrs Jenkins and if my suspicions were right, she might be his next target. My head roared with the thought of it.
Mr Darnton left my office for the last time that day, with his manila folder of printed financials under his arm.
After I’d heard the putter of his car engine and the crunch away down toward the road, I took the corner of my sleeve and carefully lifted his tea cup and dropped it into a zip-log bag and I decided to take a drive to the local police-station. That day I became a bona fide forensic accountant and quite possibly saved the life of my favourite client.
By Nikki McWatters from Australia