TTT Stories    Mr Holt’s Magical Duck

Mr Holt’s Magical Duck

Luca Pacioli makes an entrance

Although I had been in many accounting firms I’d never seen a duck in the office before.

“I thought I should introduce you,” Mr Holt said, cradling the duck to his chest. “His name’s Luca. Luca Pacioli.”

Mr Holt released Luca Pacioli in my direction. Apparently taken unaware, Luca flumped onto the floor, his feet splayed.

“Mrs Holt doesn’t approve of him,” Mr Holt added, for no obvious reason.

With a ruffle of white the duck waddled towards the table, his bulk swaying. He held my gaze slightly longer than one might expect from a duck and then, in a flurry of feathers which seemed disproportionate to the result, flopped onto the table in front of me, sending invoices flying.

“Well then,” said Mr Holt. “I’d best leave you to it.”

Having said this, he remained in the doorway, his tan tie hanging just above where I suppose his belly button would have been. His eyes were pasty, his face pallid, his head bereft of hair. In a crowd he would have been invisible.

“Unless there’s anything else I can help you with.” He smiled, sort of.

To this point Mr Holt’s help had consisted of little more than escorting me to a room scattered with disordered documents and throwing a duck at me.

“No thank you,” I said. “I’ll let you know how I get on.”

He stood on his toes and peered at the document on the table in front of me. The lump on his neck rose and fell, as if he’d swallowed a pill, and a tip of tongue slid along his bottom lip.

“He’s been a good client,” he said, then added, “Mr Farquhar has,” as if there was some doubt about who he was referring to.

He stood at the door a little longer, his eyes resting on the duck.

“Don’t worry about him,” he said, as Luca Pacioli’s tail spasmed. “It’s just that he’s never met a lady from the Tax Office before.”

“Has he not?” I said.

Mr Holt took one last look at the documents spread out on the table, then at the duck, then at me. Then he plodded back towards his office, a hunched back in a beige shirt.

Luca Pacioli eyed the documents which I had arranged into neat piles. He plodded across to the account ledgers and then to a bundle of invoices. He battered his wings and approached me, pecking and picking as if he’d spied some crumbs. He aimed his tail at me, lowered himself onto the ledger I was reading and curled his neck so that his head lay on his wing.

I tried to work around him for a time but the column of numbers ran directly under his wing. I lifted it and found the entries I’d been reading before Mr Holt interrupted me. Something wasn’t making sense. I needed to see the rest of the column but it was under the duck’s tail. I took his tail between my fingertips and raised it.

Then Luca Pacioli relieved himself.

Mr Holt tries to clean up the mess

“There’s something wrong with this document.”

The young woman, whose hair was died ink-red, gazed up at me as if the words were still winding their way from her ears to her brain.

“Wrong with it?” she said. “What?”

I held it up for her, keeping it horizontal to ensure it didn’t drip, although it was sagging precariously where Luca had made his entry.

“Did you spill something on it?” I held it closer.

“Oh. Did the duck…?” I said that it had.

The “& Co” division of “Holt & Co” consisted of the woman I was speaking to now, Becky, and Mrs Elias, who sat at a small desk outside Mr Holt’s office, like a guard dog. Her eyes slid towards us and I saw an almost imperceptible shake of her coiffed head.

“Mr Holt will need to look into that,” Becky said.

“May I speak to him, please?”

“He doesn’t like being interrupted when his door’s closed.”

The offices of Holt & Co comprised a simple rectangle which occupied a space no larger than the fish & chip shop which was on the ground floor directly below. The close walls were papered pyjama paisley, like you’d find at your grandparents’ or a funeral parlour or a funeral parlour run by your grandparents. Mr Holt’s office was directly above the entrance to the fish & chip shop.

Becky swapped her chewing gum from one side of her mouth to the other. “In the mornings he works on his tricks.”

“His tricks?”

At this Mrs Elias stood, although this didn’t make a substantial difference to her height.

“I shall verify if Mr Holt would be hypothetically available to speak with you at this juncture,” she announced. Without knocking, she went into Mr Holt’s office and closed the door. After a time, she emerged. Mr Holt would see me.

Luca Pacioli waddled along behind me as I went into Mr Holt’s office. “Would you like me to close the door?” I asked.

“We have no secrets in this office,” said Mr Holt, closing the door.

I sat down in the chair which was jammed into the space between the front of his desk and the window which overlooked Bexley Road.

“May I?” he asked, taking the document by the corners. He placed it on the desk, leaned over and looked at the rows of numbers, some of which were still obscured.

“Luca,” he said. “Did you do this?”

I wasn’t sure who else Mr Holt might have suspected of defecating on a ledger. Luca made a sound which was very unducklike. It didn’t even approximate a quack.

Mr Holt opened a drawer from which he extracted a sheet of blotting paper. He set to work dabbing and scraping at Luca’s mess.

Mr Holt’s office was no larger than the waiting area of a fish & chip shop. His rickety desk was bare apart from an adding machine, an old black telephone and framed photograph. It was a young woman in black and white, her dark hair thrown back, gazing at the camera with opal eyes. He angled the photograph away from me. Had I just seen Mrs Holt in her youth?

More photographs hung on the walls, the frames misaligned. The common denominator in each was the man who sat opposite me now: Mr Holt with three squat women in front of the Bexley Congregational Fellowship Church; Mr Holt in the Bexley Park grandstand with a group of boys wearing football jersey’s with “Holt & Co,” on the front; Mr Holt with a swarthy suited man in front of the old Commonwealth Bank Building. He wore the same expression and pose in every photo- grim mouth, slumped shoulders, bare arms hanging slack.

A piece of paper was attached to the wall behind him, its corners curled. It read, “Never go to sleep until your debits equal your credits– Luca Pacioli.”

Mr Holt looked up from his work. The edges of his lips twitched and I saw a glimpse of angled teeth.

“I think that’s taken care of the worst of it.” His hands shuddered slightly as he rolled the dirty blotting paper into a ball.

“There’s something odd about those numbers,” I said.

“Really? Is there?” His voice was hollow, as if he spoke from inside a cell. “Are you sure?” “Yes,” I said. “The debits don’t equal the credits.”

Mr Holt’s first trick and Luca Pacioli’s failed escape

The duck had been roaming around my feet, occasionally pecking at my shoes. Now he emerged from under the chair and made his way towards Mr Holt.

“Why do you think I called him Luca Pacioli?” he asked me.

“I assume it’s because Luca Pacioli was the Father of Accounting.”

Luca emitted a sound which approximated a scoff.

“Luca Pacioli didn’t just write about double-entry book keeping,” Mr Holt said. “He wrote about magic too.”

“Mr Holt, I just need to ask you about these entries.”

“I’m sure I can clear that up for you.” He held up both his arms as if to show there was nothing up his sleeves, which there clearly wasn’t given that his sleeves were short.

He went to the door and poked his head out. “Ladies,” he said. “Come in, please. Come in!” Becky and Mrs Elias squeezed into the room.

“Gather round,” said Mr Holt with an odd lilt in his voice. “I have a new trick to show you.” Becky grinned with genuine anticipation. Mrs Elias appeared unmoved by the prospect.

Mr Holt picked up the ledger which, although smeared brown, was at least clear of duck deposit.

“I shall destroy this document and restore it to its original state!” There was light in Mr Holt’s eyes and a pulse throbbed on his temple.

Before I could intervene he tore a strip right down the middle of the ledger. Then he ripped it into pieces. He rolled the pieces into a tight ball which he placed in the palm of his hand. He reached down to his drawer and produced a blunt pencil.

“And now witness as I deploy my wand, and… Hey Presto!”

He produced a ball of paper from his palm. He unwrapped it slowly with his long, thin fingers to reveal a crumpled but complete piece of paper, which I recognised as the blotting paper he had used to clean the ledger.

Becky broke into applause but stopped when Mrs Elias whacked her on the thigh.

At that point Luca Pacioli emerged from under Mr Holt’s legs and made for the door. There was something purposefully nonchalant about his waddle and his beak was slightly ajar so I leaned over to look more closely. He was holding a ball of paper. I took it from him, although not without some difficulty. I unscrewed it and re-assembled the pieces of the torn ledger on Mr Holt’s desk.

“There it is,” I said, pointing at the smeared column of numbers. “$56,610. Paid to your trust account by Farquhar Transport. Then a transfer of $51,128 back to Farquhar Transport from you on the same day. What happened to the difference?”

“Luca,” said Mr Holt, looking at his duck with apparent astonishment. “Where did you get this piece of paper?”

Mr Holt explains the discrepancy while Luca Pacioli broods

Mr Holt had dismissed Becky and Mrs Elias and we sat in his office. Luca Pacioli seemed to be in a sulk. He reclined on Mr Holt’s lap, refusing to meet my eyes. Mr Holt ran his hand along the back of Luca’s head.

“Why don’t you use computers in this office, Mr Holt?” “I don’t think accountants needed them in Mesopotamia.”

Mr Holt leaned over the patched-up document and read it again. His hand came to rest on Luca Pacioli’s neck.

“I think Mr Farquhar deposited some money with us,” he said. “And then we gave it back.”

I had worked that much out for myself. “But you haven’t refunded all of it,” I said. “There’s a difference of $5,482.”

“I’m sure we would have returned it on some other occasion.” “I couldn’t see that in any of Mr Farquhar’s records.”

The glass on the window rattled as a truck trundled along Bexley Road below. “Maybe I should speak to Mr Farquhar about it,” I said.

Mr Holt’s grip on Luca Pacioli’s neck tightened. “Speak?” he said. “To Mr Farquhar?”

“It would help clarify things. Especially given that your duck pooed on the ledger, which you then tore up.”

Luca wheezed.

“But, um, when?” asked Mr Holt.

“I see that his office is just over on West Botany Street. Perhaps you could ask him to come in.”

“Oh. Oh no. He’s overseas at the moment, I believe.” “I called his office earlier. They said he’s there today.”

“Is he? I see. I thought he was in Bali. Or maybe, um, Phuket.” “Would you mind asking him to come in so we can clear this up?”

I left the room to give Mr Holt the opportunity to contact Mr Farquhar. After a time, he emerged clutching his duck.

“Mr Farquhar is very happy to talk to you,” he said. “He wants to come over right away.”

Mr Farquhar provides some further explanation

Mr Holt’s room seemed even smaller with Mr Farquhar in it. Mr Holt had even allowed him to sit at his desk given that the room was too small to accommodate a third chair. Mr Holt stood beside the desk and I faced Mr Farquhar across it. Luca Pacioli wasn’t present for this meeting. I had observed Mr Holt cramming him into a broom cupboard just before Mr Farquhar arrived.

Mr Farquhar wore his suit in the way that a rugby league prop wears his gear. His tie was jammed over an undone top button. He had cultivated some facial hair but the line of the bottom of his beard had been taken too high and the underside of his chin looked like the belly of a shaved ferret. But I reminded myself that even Mr Farquhar must have a wife and children who loved him. Anyway, he wore a wedding ring.

“What’s this about?” he asked, without removing his eyes from my chest. “I thought perhaps Mr Holt would have told you.”

“You tell me. It’s your audit, isn’t it?” He leered at Mr Holt as if he’d just picked the winner of the first at Flemington.

“Mr Farquhar,” said Mr Holt, obviously trying to decide whether it was possible to placate both the Tax Office and his biggest client at the same time. “Um …”

That was the extent of Mr Holt’s contribution at this point.

“I got trucks to put on the road,” Mr Farquhar said, finding my eyes for the first time. “Which I’m not doing at this current moment in time.”

“This won’t take long, Mr Farquhar,” I said. “It’s just that you paid some money to Mr Holt’s trust account on 23 January last year. $56,610.”

“Yeah. So what?”

“And then some money was transferred back to you the same day. But it wasn’t the same amount.”

“Oh yeah,” Mr Farquhar said, suddenly breaking out in a rash of reasonableness. “That was a stuff up. My accounts girl put a transfer through. Accidentally by mistake. And then I called Holty up and told him he better, y’know, flick it back.”

I glanced at Mr Holt. A droplet of sweat had appeared on his brow. It was the first indication I had seen that his body contained any moisture.

Mr Farquhar was in full flow now. “And Holty says to me he’s got a cash flow issue. So he couldn’t give it all back there and then. So he gives some back and says he’ll pay the rest later.” Mr Farquhar stabbed a laugh at Mr Holt. “But you haven’t paid it back yet, have you? Bloody dickhead!”

Mr Holt managed the type of smile one might give a proctologist who cracked a scatological joke just before starting a colonoscopy.

A silence descended on the room. The smell of fish and chips curled up from below. Mr Farquhar leaned back in Mr Holt’s chair. Mrs Elias cleared her throat just outside the door.

I said, “It’s just that- well, it appears that you’ve claimed a tax deduction for that $56,610.

And also an input credit on the GST component.” “Let me have a bloody look at that.”

I held out the sheaf of documents I had collated. “There it is,” I said, pointing at the deductions. “$56,610.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I can read.”

“Um,” said “Mr Holt. “I think that’s…” “Shut up,” said Mr Farquhar.

Mr Holt shut up.

Mr Farquhar gazed at the documents. “Oh, yeah. That’s right. That fifty-six grand- I was paying an invoice.”

“You transferred money to Mr Holt’s trust account to pay an invoice?” “Yeah, well, the company that sent the invoice is one of his clients. So…”

Mr Holt adjusted from his right foot to his left, almost knocking off a row of the framed photographs which hung on the wall behind him.

“Did you keep the invoice?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” said Mr Farquhar. “I got it here.”

He shoved a hand into his jacket and produced a folded piece of paper. He thrust his hand at me.

“You’ll give that back now, won’t ya?” he asked before releasing his grip on it. I looked at the invoice. “Pacioli Consulting. What did they do for you?” “Consulting.”

“I see. So if you transferred $56,610 to pay this invoice why did Mr Holt pay back $51,128 on the same day?”

“You’d have to bloody ask him that, wouldn’t you?”

“Mr Holt?”

Mr Holt cleared his throat, blinked his eyes and fashioned some words from his mouth. “I think Becky put a transfer through. Accidentally by mistake.” He chuckled but it ended in a choke. “It wouldn’t be the first time she’s done it.”

“Yeah, I’ll need to pay that back to Holty,” Mr Farquhar said. “Y’know, once I’ve sorted out a few cash flow issues.”

I leaned back in my chair and looked at Mr Holt, who didn’t seem to be coping too well without his duck.

“It’s a shame you couldn’t have explained this to me earlier, Mr Holt,’ I said. “You might have saved Mr Farquhar a trip in.”

“Too right,” said Mr Farquhar. “It’s not exactly bloody KPMG in here, is it?”

Mr Holt is alarmed by a proposition

Mr Holt’s office door remained closed for some time following Mr Farquhar’s departure. He may have been in conference with Luca Pacioli, having retrieved him from the broom cupboard as soon as Mr Farquhar left.

I spent some time making telephone calls. When I’d done this I knocked on Mr Holt’s door.

It opened a fraction and a yellowing eye appeared. “Yes?”

“May I come in?” “Again?”

“Just for a moment,” I said.

Mr Holt closed the door in my face and I heard a desk drawer slam shut. Then he reappeared and let me in. Luca Pacioli was standing on the desk panting, his feathers ruffled. A metal bucket with a lid on top sat next to Luca on the desk. Mr Holt offered no explanation.

“I wanted to talk to you about Pacioli Consulting,” I said. “The um…yes.”

“I understand that the sole director and shareholder is Joy Holt. Is that your wife?” Mr Holt’s eyes slid to the photograph on his desk. Luca Pacioli emitted a squawk. “I need to speak to her,” I said. “To ask about the consulting.”

“Oh, that’s out of the question,” said Mr Holt. “Things are a bit… At the moment, she’s not… We’re a bit unwell. She is.”

“She sounded quite well when I spoke to her on the phone just now,” I said. His eyes widened. “You spoke to her?”

“Yes. I asked her to come in. She’s on her way.”

Mr Holt looked at Luca Pacioli, who looked back at Mr Holt. I left them alone together to await the arrival of Mrs Joy Holt.

Mrs Holt sheds some light on things

Becky said hello when Mrs Holt came into the office but she didn’t seem to notice. She noticed Mrs Elias but only to make it obvious she was ignoring her. She was cordial to me but she looked at Mr Holt as if he’d been regurgitated by a feral cat. Her greeting was confined to, “And now I get a call from the Tax Office.”

She sat at the desk opposite her husband and Luca Pacioli. I stood beside the desk. “What’s he done now?” she asked me.

“I’ve done nothing, dear,” Mr Holt said.

“Done nothing,” she said. “That sums up your life.”

“Please could we have this conversation later, dear?” Mr Holt asked, his voice shrinking. “We’ll have it later,” replied Mrs Holt. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have it now too.” Mrs Holt wore a white tunic populated by full stops. She was larger than her husband,

perhaps twice his size or possibly more. I had no way of taking an accurate measurement. Her dark hair was stretched back in a bun and I could see grey roots along the top of her forehead. When she spoke she was all eyes and lipsticked-teeth.

“Look at him,” she said to me bitterly. “A little man in a little room on top of a fish & chip shop in Bexley. Bexley! And where do you think we live? Bexley! He told me, ‘One day, when the practice thrives, I’ll get you a place in Brighton-le-Sands. So the kids can be close to the beach.’ Well, the kids are long gone and we’re still in Bexley.”

Poor Mr Holt sat hunched forward, rocking slightly, his hands on his lap. But Luca Pacioli was not so accepting. He stood on the desk staring at Mrs Holt defiantly or with at least as much defiance as a domestic duck can display.

“And look what it’s come to,” Mrs Holt said, bringing her introductory observations to a conclusion. “Sitting in his office with a tax inspector and a duck.” She glared at Luca Pacioli and added, “He loves that duck more than me.”

“I’m auditing one of Mr Holt’s clients,” I said. “A few questions have come up.” “Why would you want me here? I don’t have anything to do with it.”

I explained that I needed to ask her some questions about her consulting work. Mrs Holt looked at me blankly. “Consulting? Who?”

“Your company.” “What company?” “Pacioli Consulting.” “I’ve never …”

“Please,” Mr Holt cried. “Stop!”

He was leaning forward precariously now. He looked up at me with the eyes of a man for whom quiet desperation has long since succumbed to surrender.

“I have something to show you,” he said.

“Will it help me understand what’s happened here?”

“It will astonish you!” he said. “But I just need, um, a few minutes.”

“All right,” I said. “I don’t mind taking a short break. Although I have to ask you not to speak to your wife until I’ve finished my questioning.”

Mr Holt made no reply. But the expression on his face indicated that nothing would give him more pleasure at this point than refraining from speaking to his wife.

Mr Holt’s last trick

Mr Holt insisted that we wait outside his office. So I sat with Mrs Holt, Mrs Elias and Becky. No one ventured to speak. The phone didn’t ring while we waited and it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard it the whole time I’d been there. Nor, on reflection, had I seen anyone doing much work. I looked over at Becky who silently chewed gum while gazing at a poster of a Hemsworth above her desk.

Mr Holt emerged from his office. The pallor had abandoned his face, which showed colour for the first time that day.

“Luca Pacioli will now disappear and then reappear in a different place.” “Mr Holt,” I said. “Is this really necessary?”

“Yes!” he cried. His hands shook and his speech had quickened. He appeared to be in a sort of mania. “You’ll see what I’m capable of doing.” He glanced at his wife. “You’ll see the real and true Neville Holt!”

He dashed back to his office and emerged with the metal bucket I’d seen on his desk earlier.

He held the bucket on an angle and opened the lid so each of us could see inside. “Empty, you see. Empty. Empty.”

It did indeed appear to be empty during the quick glimpse he had given us.

“And now,” he said. “I’ll need a volunteer from the audience. You, our guest from the Tax Office. Hold this, please.”

Reluctantly I stood and held the bucket, which was surprisingly heavy given that it was empty.

Now Mr Holt went to his office and returned with a box which he placed on Mrs Elias’ desk.

She moved her chair out of the danger zone.

Yet again he went to his office and came back holding Luca Pacioli in outstretched arms. He clutched him tight around the wings and Luca’s neck bobbed forward and back, forward and back. But Luca was curiously sedate during this short journey and his eyes were glazed. He seemed to be in a stupour, or perhaps the events of the day had simply taken their toll.

In any event, Luca had little time to contemplate what was happening because Mr Holt lowered him into the box. He groped around inside it for a moment, possibly to mollify Luca, and then placed the lid on top. He retrieved his blunt pencil and performed some type of bizarre accounting incantation in which the words “depreciation” and “fungible assets” were mentioned.

Mr Holt then proceeded to disassemble the box into its component parts and stack them on the desk. Once this was done Luca was nowhere to be seen. He had indeed disappeared. I looked under the desk to see if he’d escaped through a false bottom but he wasn’t there.

“Where are you, Luca?” Mr Holt said, his voice lilting like that of a child who has fooled all the grown-ups. “Are you perhaps here (he looked in the drawer of Mrs Elias’ desk)? Or here (he flounced over to the broom cupboard, made a show of listening at the door, then pulled it open and peered inside)? No!”

For the first time that day Mr Holt seemed to be free. The weight had lifted from his shoulders and his arms flailed around as if jerked by a demented puppeteer.

“Or,” giggled Mr Holt, “Perhaps he’s in there.”

He pointed at the bucket I was holding. Then he placed a finger on his lips and tiptoed towards me. Becky gazed at Mr Holt with wide eyes. Mrs Elias held her head in her hands. Mrs Holt stared at her husband oddly, apparently stunned into silence.

Mr Holt pulled up the lid of the bucket.

“Luca?” He put his hand inside. Suddenly his voice rose. “Luca?”

I leaned over and looked inside the bucket. There was Luca, but he wasn’t moving.

Mr Holt pulled Luca out of what was obviously a secret compartment, a space almost impossibly small for a duck. His neck was twisted and his head sagged at an odd angle.

Mr Holt pushed the disassembled sections of the box off Mrs Elias’ desk. As he did this a deflated plastic duck flopped onto the ground. I would never have thought an inflatable duck could look so real, although I now know that such things are readily available online together with the other component parts of this magic trick, the mysteries of which can be solved with a simple Google search of the words “disappearing duck trick.”

Mr Holt lay the duck on the desk. “No,” he said, his voice quivering. “I’ve killed Luca Pacioli.”

Mr Holt departs the office of Holt & Co

The contrivance which I discovered that day had produced $22,895 in GST input credit and income tax deductions for Mr Farquhar. And Mr Holt had received $5,482 for facilitating this unique accounting service.

I knew this as I stood in the office of Holt & Co watching Mr Holt trying to perform mouth to mouth on a dead duck. And Mr Holt knew that I knew. His wife knew that I knew something although she didn’t know quite what. And of course I didn’t yet know that Mr Holt and Mr Farquhar had done it 17 times.

Mr Holt raised his mouth from Luca’s beak. Becky looked on in confusion. Mrs Elias dabbed her eyes.

At the sight of the man she must have once loved now demeaned, Mrs Holt clutched a handkerchief in her fist. For a moment I saw the face of the young woman in the photograph on Mr Holt’s desk. She moved to touch him and for a moment her hand hovered over his. But then she seemed to remember herself, or at least who she wanted to be. She withdrew her hand and strode from the office.

As Mr Holt looked at me, his duck clutched to his chest, I thought he was going to tell me something. Not about input credits or tax deductions. Something about the pain of a Monday morning or about being a man, and shrinking. But he didn’t.

He stood up, cradling Luca.

“I’m going out now,” he said to no one in particular. “I might not be back for some time.” He walked to the door and then Mr Holt and his duck disappeared.

By Marcus Elliott from New Zealand