Everyone hates me.
I’m an inspector for Accountancy Solutions. I’m the guy who swoops into your place of work when your boss thinks someone’s nicking money or goods, and goes through the accounts to make sure things are in order. And if they’re not, it’s muggins here who points the finger at the likely culprit.
I do pretty well at it. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we adore each other, in fact we’ve got the perfect marriage. My boss Colin is also my best and oldest friend. Elizabeth and I have got a beautiful big house. On the whole I enjoy my work.
Born lucky I suppose you could say.
So why do you think I risked everything I’ve ever worked for to help a perfect stranger out of trouble?
My strange experience happened in Edinburgh. My company had sent me up to Frigid Foods, a large distribution centre for supermarket produce, where the boss suspected that money was going missing. And I’d done the job to a tee.
Which was what was upsetting me so much.
I was waiting at the airport for Flight 409 that was leaving shortly, to take me back to London. I was brooding and unhappy, remembering the ‘criminal’ Mary McCarthy, the extremely attractive middle-aged lady in the accounts department, who’d asked me into her office as I was leaving.
Tearfully she’d confessed to being the one who’d taken the money, something which I already knew. She explained about her daughter’s drug addiction, her desperate attempts to find her counselling and therapy, and the huge cost of treatment at the addiction clinic. This was the reason, she told me, that she’d ‘borrowed’ money from the company’s account, intending to pay it all l back before anyone noticed. Indeed, she told me, she’d got a loan that very day, and had already paid back all that she’d taken, but it would only show in the books tomorrow, too late for her to cover up what she’d done, particularly as I had now completed my audit. For obvious reasons we inspectors arrive out of the blue, so that no potential crook has the opportunity to cover their tracks.
Of course she knew there was nothing I could do to help her, she didn’t even ask. Just sat there, telling me about her depression and misery, how she was divorced, and had been prepared to pay literally anything to find help for her daughter, who’d ‘fallen apart in front of her eyes’, but thankfully at long last had found a boyfriend and was on the road to recovery. All I could do was advise her to tell her boss the truth next day, before they got my company report, and to throw herself on his mercy.
She replied, grimly telling me what I already knew: that as soon as he found out the company would be obliged to prosecute her, she might even go to prison, and she’d certainly never get another decent job.
FLIGHT 409, LONDON. ARRIVED
Was the notice that flipped up on the huge announcement board, that broke into my gloomy thoughts. But just as I stood up to go through to the departure lounge, I knew that I couldn’t go.
I just couldn’t go!
I pictured Elizabeth, my wonderful wife, getting ready to drive out to meet me at Heathrow in a couple of hours’ time.
But I still couldn’t go.
For some weird reason I knew that there was no way that I could leave Edinburgh. Next thing I knew I was running out of the airport and leaping into a taxi. When I arrived back at Frigid Foods, the man on the reception desk was surprised to see me.
“Thought you’d finished, Mr Cook,” he said.
“Something I forgot,” I told him. “Is it all locked up upstairs then?”
“No, the offices stay open until eight in case anyone wants to work late.”
As I climbed up to the third floor I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, a gut-churning fear of I don’t know what. I raced hell-for-leather up the last flight, and reached the accounts office door, crashing through, to hear the sound of furniture falling. And I arrived to see Mary McCarthy dangling by the neck from a noose that was fixed to the ceiling.
I made it in time to lift her legs, and eventually managed to reach up and disentangle the noose, so that she fell down into my arms. She was slack and almost comatose, but it was merely drunkenness that was affecting her: I could smell alcohol on her breath, but she was breathing fine, panting in fact. It looked as if I’d arrived in time to stop the noose doing any damage at all.
And, unsettlingly, I realised how attractive I found her to be. I longed to kiss her, and hold her in my arms. When I’d settled her on the chair, I found another one and sat in front of her.
“Why did you come back?” she demanded, aggressive in her drunkenness. “Why did you stop me?”
I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “Because I’ve had an idea.”
“I can make it go away.”
“I haven’t emailed my report yet. The money’s going to be in the company account tomorrow. I’m going to fudge the figures. I can pull some wangles, make the missing money ‘appear’ where it shouldn’t, at dates it didn’t. I’ll tell your boss there are no discrepancies, that everything’s fine.”
“But why? ” She stared at me in amazement. “If anyone found out—”
“My career would be toast.”
How could I answer her? I hadn’t got a clue myself.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck. I’m in love with my wife, I enjoy my work, I’ve got money, and I simply can’t face going back to my lovely happy life at home and leaving you in the shit. I like you, Mary. And I’ve seen enough criminals to tell when someone’s straight and decent.”
“You feel sorry for me.”
“Anyone would feel sorry for you. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have a problem daughter to cope with.”
“Oh God, Michael, I don’t know what to say. Thanking you doesn’t even begin to cut it,” she said quietly after a while. “You know I simply can’t believe this is happening. I mean what do you get out of it?”
“Nothing. I don’t want anything, I just want to put things right. Forget this mess ever happened.”
“Come on. Let’s get out of here and find a decent place to eat. I’m starving.”
We found a nice pub and had a good meal. And Mary relaxed more as she ate, and the drunkenness wore off. And with a sinking heart I suddenly realised how utterly stupid I was being.
For in the last half hour I’d done something I’d never ever done before in my professional life, and I was going to live to regret it. I’d fallen for a pretty face, and stupidly risked everything I’d worked for, for the last twenty years: my well-paid job, my lifestyle. And if I lost my job my wonderful wife Elizabeth would suffer too.
Oh God, Elizabeth. We’d never had any secrets from each other, and I knew I’d have to tell her what I’d done. That’s the kind of marriage we had, we could tell each other virtually everything. I could tell her what a bloody fool I was to have done this rash act of kindness and she would understand.
Or could I?
Was I betraying her?
But for the next hour Mary chatted away about her life, her family, her daughter’s troubles and so on until I suddenly realised guiltily that I hadn’t phoned Elizabeth to tell her I’d be on the later flight. While Mary went to the toilet, I dialled my home’s number on my mobile, then cursed as I remembered that the phone people had been tinkering with the wires in the road outside our house, and the landline phone was behaving erratically.
Strangely, the next time the dialling tone gave way immediately to a conversation, and I recognised Elizabeth’s voice on what had to be a crossed line. Then I heard who she was talking to:
“Shut up Lizzie and listen!” said the male voice I recognised as Colin, my best friend and boss at Accountancy Solutions. “I tell you there were no survivors at all on flight 409. Yes, yes, poor old Michael, I know, it’s terrible, but face it darling, he was killed on take-off, everyone was. At least it makes things simpler for us. Now you don’t need to divorce him. And knowing Michael, I bet his life was insured to the hilt.”
“But Colin darling, it’s all so sudden, I can’t get used to it…”
In a daze I looked up at the large flatscreen TV on the wall of the pub. There in front of me was the wreckage of the aircraft I should have been on, with the words underneath reiterating that all the passengers on Flight 409 were killed in the crash.