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Authors: Joanne Fox Phillips

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BOOK: Revenge of the Cube Dweller
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“No one is sure why it happened,” he concludes. “May have been some digging. There certainly is a lot of construction going on in that area.”

“Or it could have been their fault,” I say. “They have a culture of cutting corners. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they used substandard piping or didn’t maintain the system properly. They seem—”

“Not a very loyal employee, are we?” Beth interrupts.

“Not these days.” I take a breadstick out of the basket, knowing I will be the only one consuming carbs tonight. It seems like the better choice over the garlic bread and focaccia. Still, Beth raises her eyebrow, so I put it down on my bread plate after taking a single bite.

“Bill Matheson is handling some of the lawsuits,” Grant says. “I know Alice’s parents have retained him. There may be others as well.”

“That’s right up his alley. He’ll do a good job,” I say, eyeing the breadstick.

“Bill’s already been interviewed on the news a few times.” Beth leans toward me and lowers her voice. “He’s such an obnoxious blowhard. I don’t know how Julie puts up with him.”

“That’s what makes him such a good lawyer, Beth,” Grant says, defending his pal.

“True,” I say. “But I’ll never know how all of you last for eighteen holes listening to all his baloney.”

“We’ve been friends so long, I probably just don’t notice it,” Grant says with a shrug. “Man, you girls are mean.”

Beth and I look at each other and smile. It was no secret that we didn’t like Bill and Julie. “I think I’ve uncovered a fraud,” I say, changing the topic. I give them the particulars of the Mazie caper, including the sports car and dowdy appearance.

“What are you going to do about it?” Beth asks. “Prosecute?”

“Not sure. I tried to tell my boss but I just haven’t had a chance,” I answer.

Grant is an insurance executive and begins a tale he heard about from a colleague.

“You know, years ago, my buddy over at Marsh was asked to cover a claim on a fraud down in Brazil. One of the major oil companies, not sure which one, had a posh office down there. In the president’s office hung a very expensive oil painting, a Mark Rothko, I think. During the collapse of oil prices in the mid-’80s, the office was closed, and when the painting was appraised for shipment back to the States, they discovered it was a forgery.”

“Oh no! Did they know who stole the real one?” I ask with a smile.

“They thought, but could not prove, that sometime during her employment the president’s secretary had substituted the original with a copy, and no one had noticed.”

“Can you imagine? This woman, who probably loved art, working for this Jethro who would have preferred dogs playing poker or a velvet Elvis.” Beth laughs.

“You have no idea what it is like to work for people like that,” I chime in. “I’d probably do the same thing, if I’d been clever enough to think of it.”

“The best crimes are the ones where no one can figure out who done ’em,” Grant concludes, and we all laugh.

“I went to a continuing education seminar on fraud awhile back,” I say. “The instructor referred to a ‘fraud triangle’ to explain the factors that cause someone to commit a fraud. The theory is that there must be pressure, opportunity, and the ability to rationalize the act. This guy took it one step further. He thought everyone had the potential to commit a fraud; the tipping point is unique to each person. It’s in every one of us, though.”

Beth takes exception to this idea. “I would never steal!”

“Not even if you were starving to death or your child was starving? You wouldn’t steal a piece of bread? Didn’t you see
Les Misérabes
?”

“Well, maybe. But that’s different!”

It isn’t different, though. It is just a matter of degree. Beth and Grant have so much money that they would never feel the pressure to steal, because they can always buy what they need.

“The same triangle can apply to unethical behavior other than stealing—such as cheating on your wife,” I say. “Pressure: You really need to get laid; opportunity: A beautiful babe is interested in you, a potbellied, rich old fart; rationalization: Your wife is sick, bored, disgusted by you, or all of the above.”

“I do not have a potbelly!” Grant says grinning.

“I was talking about Winston,” I say.

They get quiet. “Have you talked to Winston lately?” Beth asks.

When I say no, Beth and Grant exchange looks.

“Caroline is pregnant. Did you know?” Beth finally says.

I down the rest of my martini and signal the waiter to bring me another.

“Oh my,” I muster. “Is that a good thing?”

Grant and Beth decide not to answer my question, and we are saved by the waiter bringing our entrées to the table. Suddenly, I wish I had ordered the lasagna instead of having what Beth ordered: the broiled fish and steamed spinach, all taste on the side. Impulsively, I take a piece of garlic bread from the basket and consume it in a single bite, issuing Beth a “don’t judge me” look as I reach for another.

“How would you steal the painting?” Grant asks to break the silence.

“What?”

“You said you would probably do the same thing. How would you go about it?”

Grant is a sweetheart for trying to take my mind off Winston.

“I don’t know. Probably take a picture of the real one, have a forgery made, and then switch them over a weekend or after hours.”

“It’s a huge painting. You don’t think security would see you?”

“Let me tell you a thing or two about building security.” I begin the tale of my Easter Sunday, assuring them that you could probably convince the security guard to hang the fake painting for you and load the priceless one into your car, all without the slightest inquiry as to what you are doing.

“It always amazes me that businesses tend to leave something so critical under the control of minimum wage rent-a-cops.”

We finish our dinner refining criminal strategies. I am grateful for the temporary diversion.

When we return to the house, Beth and Grant leave me while I head out to the patio for a nightcap and to chain-smoke the last five cigarettes in my pack. I think of Winston raising a child at his age. I guess now that his climb to the top is finally complete, he can devote himself to fatherhood with a new young wife. How lucky for him, I decide, and I smoke and sob quietly, thinking about Winston starting a family and me not even having my dog.

CHAPTER SEVEN

W
hen I wake, I find the house empty. Groggily, I walk through silence and unfamiliar rooms until I come across Beth on the patio, a newspaper spread out on a glass table in front of her and a lit cigarette in her hand. Maria brings out some coffee and fruit for me, and I bum a cigarette from Beth. I had smoked all mine the night before. I grimace as I look down at the
Houston Chronicle
. News of the pipeline explosion dominates every story on the front page.

“At least there’s a nice obituary for Alice and Ken,” Beth says. She folds the paper back to an interior page and hands it to me. “I can’t believe they’re gone.”

I take the paper and look down at the low-resolution, gray-toned picture of Alice and Ken. It isn’t their best; Alice’s makeup was smudged under her left eye and Ken was smiling too broadly the way he sometimes did after a few drinks. It gave him a whole
extra chin. Alice’s mother must have had to choose one where their faces were close together so that it could be cropped to fit the copy. There are too many gray squares of faces crowding that page. I put the paper back down.

“I can’t read it now. It’s like if I think about it too much I’ll just start crying and never stop.”

“I know. Me too.”

“I hope Bill burns that company to the ground, just sues the living shit out them,” I say finally. Beth purses her lips and nods, tearing up a bit.

“You’d be out of a job.”

I nod. “I’ve had enough of Tulsa and enough of that stupid job. It’s like stepping back in time every morning.” I give Beth a recap of the work situation—every single misstep and reprimand. Office politics are lost on Beth, but when I am done, she hugs me and pats my back.

“You can always come back. You can join Ravenswood,” she suggests. “Margie is the worst tournament partner I’ve ever had. She can’t sink a putt and it’s killing me.” She stutters through those last words as she tries to catch her breath after all the crying.

“Beth, I’m a weekend golfer at best,” I say. “Besides, I’m fifty-two. I need a job that comes with health insurance. It’s a lousy market right now, especially for someone my age. I’m lucky to have anything. I’ll keep looking for something down here, but for now I’m stuck where I am.”

“Don’t be so down on yourself, Tanzie. You just need to get back on your feet.”

“Thanks,” I say, shrug, and look out beyond the patio. I don’t want to continue the conversation. What is friendly reassurance
going to do to fix this situation, any of it? Maybe I can get back on my feet in a few years, but I am never going to be a country club regular again. Beth cannot understand it. My charmed life is over, while Beth’s is only just hitting its stride. I have been cut from that team with no hope of returning.

Beth excuses herself to get dressed and then run some errands. There is a visitation for Ken, Alice, and the boys that evening, and we are planning a late dinner out afterward. Beth tells me she will be out of pocket most of the day since one of the charity boards she volunteers on is planning a gala that’s scheduled in a few weeks. That is fine with me. Relaxing at their River Oaks estate is like vacationing at a five-star resort, something that is beyond my reach at the moment.

I experience some guilt for feeling sorry for myself when I start to read the article about Ken and Alice. What do I have to complain about? Still, I am surprised to read in the second paragraph that Ken had graduated from the University of Kansas in the late ’70s and had played on the Jayhawk football team. The word “Jayhawk” sounds familiar, and then I remember the password under Marla’s pen set.

I call to Beth upstairs and ask if I can borrow a computer.

“Grant has one in his office,” she yells back. “Feel free.”

Bishop does not allow telecommuting but does have remote access so that employees can work from home after hours, on weekends, or while traveling. I access the login site,
https://portal.bishopgroup.com
. I type BBISHOP as the user name and then look at the saved memo on my iPhone and type GOJayhawks!17 as the password.
Access denied
flashes back at me. With two BBISHOPs, I figure maybe one of their user IDs includes a middle initial. Baldwin’s is
R
for Robert and Bennet’s
is
C
for Charles. BRBISHOP, I type, and boom, I’m in. I am looking at a Citrix screen with subheadings for web bookmarks, secured folders, and terminal sessions. The screen displays
Welcome to Bishop secure access, BRBishop
.

I quickly log out. I am shaking. Why did I just do that? What if they trace the login to Grant? I do not want to involve him. Also, what if Baldwin was on his computer when I accessed it? Would he be able to tell I was in there, too?

I need some time to think about what to do with this access. I initially thought the Jayhawk password was Marla’s, but Baldwin probably gave her access so she could send email on his behalf. Clearly it would be interesting to eavesdrop during this explosion crisis; I just don’t want to get arrested doing it.

“Get what you needed?” Beth asks, stopping by Grant’s office.

“Oh yes. Thanks.”

“See ya this evening.” And with that, I hear Beth’s footsteps headed down the hallway and the heavy door to the garage shut loudly.

I start to get up and notice a flash drive sticking out of Grant’s computer. I remember the one in my purse that has the files I took from Marla’s desktop. I run upstairs to get my purse, and in seconds I have replaced Grant’s portable device with my own. I have an overwhelming desire to spy on Baldwin. I want to know what he knew about the explosion that incinerated my friends and their children. I do not feel comfortable logging on to his computer while there is a chance he might be on it, but I can gain some familiarity by checking out the files I downloaded on Easter. Maybe the files will be as dull as his medicine cabinet, but I won’t know if I don’t look. Perhaps they will provide some insight that will help me later on.

I click on the first folder, titled “LEAR,” and open one of the documents in the 2010 subfolder. There are seven or eight documents, all headed the same: Large Expenditure Authorization Request. Each document is a proposal from a business segment to spend a large amount of money on a project. There are financial models and return on investment rates along with supporting spreadsheets and narratives describing the benefits, risks, and other details associated with each proposal. Approved proposals have either Bennet’s or Baldwin’s signature on the bottom of the PDF file. Denied or deferred proposals have that status indicated on the signature line.

This is pretty interesting stuff, and it makes me forget that I am a nobody with a career going nowhere. By noon I have made it through 2010. I enjoy reading about each project and looking at the numbers supporting the request. I chuckle to myself when I notice that an approved project to build a gas plant in Kansas has a bust in the spreadsheet calculating the return on investment. Based on my calculation, the return should be closer to 3 percent than the 9 percent appearing in the request. I wonder if they will ever figure that out when the actual numbers come in.

BOOK: Revenge of the Cube Dweller
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