I knew I shouldn’t have listened; I knew their conversation wasn’t meant for my ears but I’d eavesdropped all the same. I couldn’t help it. I’d always been both cursed and blessed with a curiosity capable of killing the entire feline population of Dallas. Perhaps if the voices within hadn’t been raised and full of discord, I might have resisted temptation. Perhaps…but probably not if I were being honest.
A little white lie, a fabricated errand to lure the administrative assistant away from her station outside of Kenneth’s office, and I’d cleared the way to press my ear to the door unnoticed.
“Bob, you can’t possibly sign off, there are too many known errors and even more questionable accounting treatments,” a woman’s voice said. Marilyn. The voice of reason, my mentor if I could impress her.
“Your objections are duly noted, but again I’m telling you, you’re overruled. I’ve signed off. The advisory partner has signed off. It’s a done deal,” Bob said.
I pulled away from the door and scanned my surroundings to double check that no one would catch me spying. My heart pounded as I considered the implications of Bob’s willingness to give Aphrodite a clean bill of health on their independent audit. It didn’t make sense. Why would he do it?
“We’ve got missing cash, overvalued inventories, two luxury cars and a jet that no one can seem to produce, to name just a few of the things we’ve found. It’s significant, Bob, and you know it.”
I mouthed “don’t forget the past due payroll taxes” as if I could somehow prompt Marilyn. I checked my watch. I needed to get our lunches but another few minutes eavesdropping wouldn’t hurt.
“The inventory discrepancy is not an Aphrodite issue. Gayle and Jon royally botched the counts and that’s all there is to it. We can’t hold Aphrodite hostage because of abysmal staff performance that can’t be blamed solely on inexperience. You should have replaced those two PURE’s at the beginning of the job like I suggested, but you said you had it under control. At this point, the cost to recount would be exorbitant. It’s no longer a viable option.”
I drew back for a second, stunned, and felt my stomach knot up, the hunger pangs vanquished and replaced by something malignant. Abysmal? Bob thought my work was abysmal? And Jon’s too? He called us previously undetected recruiting errors? No way! I know I did a good job and so did Jon; Marilyn even said so. How could Bob be so glib in front of our client?
My hoop earring collided with the door as I pressed my ear too rapidly to its station. I froze, afraid that they might have heard me. I should have worn studs; hoops were much less professional. Of course, what I was doing was utterly unprofessional and the synchronicity of my jewelry choice made me smile. I listened for signs that I’d betrayed my presence and hearing none, pressed closer.
“…a lawsuit waiting to happen, then your costs will look like loose change in comparison,” Marilyn said. “Kenneth, you can’t possibly sign your name to those financial statements. Have you considered the implications to this company, to your reputation, your CPA license?” If Kenneth answered, I didn’t hear what he said.
Visions of being called to the stand to testify in a massive class action lawsuit hijacked my attention. I didn’t do well under that type of intense and contentious interrogation and knew I’d burst into tears before even being asked to state my name. I wished I had never let Jon talk me into working on the Aphrodite audit with him. I hadn’t had my CPA license that long and I didn’t particularly like the idea of having to hand it back before the ink had dried. I had worked too damned hard to get it and would have zero chance of making partner without it.
“Marilyn! You’re out of line!” Bob bellowed, his voice loud enough for the entire building to hear. I scanned my surroundings to see if anyone had been attracted by Bob’s voice, but no one had. A couple of strands of my hair snagged on the door’s name plate and came out by the root. I watched them float down and dangle from the plate that said “Kenneth Petrovich, Chief Financial Officer”. I plucked my silent witnesses free and dropped them to the floor then resumed listening.
“Bob, I think we should take this offline and discuss it further at the Anderson Blakely offices,” Marilyn said, her voice a little calmer, but the alarm still present. She said something else but I couldn’t make out her words.
I backed away from the door when I heard Bob say something about taking Kenneth out to lunch before returning to his office downtown. My timing was perfect. I had barely seated myself on the edge of Nicky’s desk when she turned the corner with the stock register book in hand. I took it, offered my profuse thanks, then rushed out of Aphrodite to pick up Jon’s and my lunches.
The same guest parking spot I vacated lured me back with of a tease of shade now that the sun had moved from its overhead position. Though October, the Dallas weather remained warm and shade a coveted commodity. I gathered my purse and the lunches and tottered toward the main entrance on my four inch high monuments to bad judgment. They looked glamorous and classy, and almost brought my height to average, but on the inside, malaise ruled. Kind of like this place. I glanced at the oversized pink letters that adorned the wall above the receptionist. “Aphrodite Cosmetics, Inc.” What a joke, like naming a pit bull “Cuddles”. Too bad, because they made good products–or used to anyway.
“There she is, the golden angel of gastro delights,” my co-worker Jon said as he looked up from his papers, smiling. “What took you so long? You left an hour ago.”
“More like the demon courier of gastroenteritis. I got sidelined before I could leave, sorry,” I replied somewhat truthfully as I dumped my cargo on the table.
“Sidelined? By whom or what this time? Scully?”
“No. I didn’t see his little Siamese buckskin or I would have. Perhaps you already let him in though?”
“Me? He’s your charity case,” Jon scoffed. “One day the warehouse guys are going to catch you letting him in to give him water.”
“I’ll bet Scully catches mice and earns his keep when he’s inside. They need him, whether they realize it or not.” Despite giving me a hard time, I’d spied Jon letting Scully in too. Plus, he always ribbed me about Scully when the mercury rose.
“So if not the cat, let me guess. Shelly in Shipping wanted to know who highlights your blonde tresses or Pablo in Payables had to show off his new mechanical pencil or maybe it was Warehouse Wes who offered you a ride on his forklift.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.
“I know not of these fictional people of whom you speak,” I said, squinting and miming my hands in a confused gesture.
“You get more people and critters at this place trying to sideline you than a naked quarterback at the Superbowl.”
“Riiight. That one could have used a bit more oven time, Jon,” I said as I shook my head at his teasing. At least that’s what I thought he was trying to do.
Jon’s acumen with computers was almost paranormal but like a lot of highly intelligent, technical people, he leaned a smidge off center socially. He’d sometimes speak as if he’d been having a conversation with you only he’d forgotten that your part of it had occurred in his head. I had kind of figured out how his mind worked and could usually infer his meaning from a few external clues but others weren’t so lucky. I often intervened as translator. Despite his foibles–that also included a need for privacy that bordered on paranoia–we had become good friends. Too bad I never dated co-workers because Jon was my type with an extra ‘rrrrorrww’.
“So? Where you been?” He snapped his fingers. “Gayle?”
“Oh! I went to the executive offices before I left to talk to your not-so-secret-admirer, Nicky.” I divvied up the order and took my seat. I ignored his coy eye-roll over my Nicky observation because he knew as well as I did that it was a hundred percent true.
“Oh? Did she have anything to say about Bob and Marilyn’s meeting with Kenneth earlier today? Would love to have been a fly on the wall during that.”
What a great straight man. He’d handed me the perfect lead-in. “Buzz, buzz. I can tell you exactly what went down. Bob said he was going to sign off, Marilyn had a hissy fit, then Bob exploded.” I had deliberately relayed my intelligence like it was no more important than tonight’s television lineup. I took a giant bite of my apple and waited for his reaction as I chewed. Meltdown in three-two-one…
“What! Did Nicky tell you that?” Jon asked in an excited but lowered voice as he rolled his chair closer to mine and leaned in like a co-conspirator. I picked up a whiff of Irish Spring as he did.
I held up my finger for him to wait for me to finish chewing and swallowing. “No, not Nicky. I heard it with my own ears. I swung by her desk on my way out to ask if she’d heard anything but the meeting was still in progress. Anyway, while I was there I asked her if I could see the stock register book. After she left to get it from the locked storage room, I walked over to the door to try to hear what they were saying. I know, I know, I’m bad.”
He shook his head then asked, “Why did you need to see the stock register book?”
“I didn’t. I needed Nicky to leave her desk.”
Jon regarded me with his expressive brown eyes, brows raised, no doubt shocked by my audacity; he always was. I wanted to laugh. He had no idea how low I’d stoop to ferret out secrets, including his. This was nothing, but he didn’t need to know that.
“And? What did you hear?” He whirled his hand in a ‘hurry up’ gesture.
I took a big bite of my sandwich and after I’d finished chewing gave him a gloves-off synopsis, including the part about Bob’s intent to replace us and why.
“He said that about you and me, Gayle? He wanted to kick us off the job?” Jon asked with a look that hovered between pissed off and hurt. I noticed he jiggled his knee up and down too.
I reached for my sandwich to take another bite but before I could, Jon tugged the wrapper it lay on out of my reach.
“Yeah. Sucks doesn’t it?” I knew I sounded flip but all of this was so Twilight Zone to me . I had no idea how to convince Bob to reconsider his position on Aphrodite; Marilyn had already failed and Jon and I were the lowest men on the totem pole. But if we did nothing, we’d share in the blame.
“I can’t believe he said any of that in front of the client,” Jon said, eyes wide.
“I guess Marilyn couldn’t either because she asked if they could continue the discussion at the office and he said, ‘No, we’re done discussing. It’s eating time now! Who wants chicken fried steak?'”
“Eating time?” Jon laughed. “Did he really say that?”
I laughed and came clean. “Nah, I took a few liberties but I’m sure he was thinking it. Speaking of which, I’d like my sandwich back, please.” I laughed again but Jon’s expression turned serious. He also retained custody of my sandwich.
“What if someone had caught you eavesdropping?”
I flipped my hand at him. “Don’t worry; they didn’t. They’re all at lunch now,” then I lowered my voice an octave and said in my gruff Bob voice as I stood and hitched up my imaginary pants, “eating chicken fried steak.”
I continued my charade to ease the tension. “This is super serious partner stuff you wouldn’t understand, Johnny boy. You must defer to my superior judgment. Because I’m gorgeous, don’t you know! Have you seen my latest picture by the way?”
Jon snickered at my imitation because Bob had pictures of himself throughout his office, got his hair cut every week and rarely ordered anything other than chicken fried steak for lunch. Jon’s laughter died when he looked at the doorway. I turned and saw, to my horror, that Bob Ternes stood there. He didn’t look too pleased. The restaurant must have run out of chicken fried steak.