Factor of Nine

Pontus entered Herb’s office without knocking. “Here are the accounts.” He dropped a thick stack of ledgers on Herb Swanson’s already cluttered desk. Herb removed his wire rimmed glasses, pushed a hand up and over his bald pate.

“Thanks Eric.” Herb felt a rush of envy as he looked up at the tall, athletic head of Public Relations. He remembered the company picnic, his stumbling run toward first base, falling, Pontus’ loud cat calls as Herb picked himself up, rubbed his knee, plucked at his torn pants and limped back to the bench. He had glanced at Cynthia, had seen her watching Pontus, her broad smile. The brunette receptionist set his pulse racing. Eric Pontus had hit two more home runs earning cheers of delight from Cynthia Comstock. Herb had struck out his next two times at bat. The company receptionist just moaned. Story of my life, he had thought. Short, small of stature—his mother said wiry, his father said wimpy—Herbert Swanson longed to be popular, the center of attention at the water cooler, noticed by women, especially Cynthia Comstock.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Eric laughed as he  added, “How’s the knee…sport?”

“Fine, thanks. Say Eric…,” Herb bit back the cutting remark. He just couldn’t lower himself to Pontus’ level. “…nothing. Thanks.”

Pontus left the office, chuckling and shaking his head. Herb could hear him laughing in the lobby, Cynthia’s squeals of delight. “Oh, Eric, you’re such a cut up. Oh my gosh, Pierre Cardin, what a gorgeous watch!” Herb knew Eric had flashed the expensive wrist watch under Cynthia’s nose. He had been showing it off around the office for the last week.

Herb replaced his glasses, set aside his antipathy, opened the annual reports from the Public Relations department. He scanned the columns of figures, looked over the entries in the disbursements ledgers, flipped to the budget analysis sections. He pulled over his ten key, began the process he enjoyed. He’d always been good in math, even in school, disgusting to his father who had wanted Herbert to excel in sports. He leaned back in his chair and allowed reflection to divert his attention. Maybe he wasn’t the athletic type, but he excelled in some things, math, accounting—he was head accountant in the department—photography. He loved taking pictures, landscapes mostly. Cynthia Comstock. His only exception. He had approached her first, shy, asking permission. At the company picnic, she had giggled, had made a scene, more for Eric Pontus’ benefit than Herb’s camera. He had developed the prints himself, and torn them up afterward. Cynthia couldn’t look in the camera and say cheese, not while Pontus was in the vicinity. Herb heard the roar of an engine, swiveled in his office chair, caught sight of Pontus’ yellow Porsche 911 swinging out of the parking lot. He looked at his watch. 9:47. A little early for the cocktail hour, he thought. He stared at his rust brown Volkswagen beetle, a hulking wreck. Better off in the junk yard. But it ran well, served the purpose. Maybe he’d trade it in, if he got a bonus at the end of the year. Fat chance. Thirteen years with the company, and no bonus so far. He wondered idly what color car Cynthia preferred. Bet she would look good in a yellow sports car, he thought, grinning self consciously.

Yellow sports cars. He thought of Pontus, and that made him remember the ledgers. He spun around, returned to the business at hand.

Some hours later Swanson loosened his tie, pushed back from the desk. Everything seemed in place. Foot. Cross foot. Every total balanced. Yet something didn’t add up. He wondered what it was that had spiked his curiosity, made him sit up all of a sudden, alert, suspicious. He began to go back over the accounts, more carefully this time, not looking for correct totals, something else, double entries maybe. He didn’t know exactly.

He stood to stretch. Late afternoon. Where had the day gone? He checked his watch again. Almost quitting time. Staff would be heading for happy hour in the lounge at street level. Sometimes he went there himself, even though he didn’t drink. He craved the company—well, Cynthia’s—even thought Eric was entertaining sometimes. Until Pontus took notice. No one else ever did, but the tall, blonde jock took particular pleasure in making a spectacle of the company’s head accountant. Last time it had been Herb’s car. Pontus had made references to Herb and the car having certain similarities. Laughter had rung throughout the bar, Herb had joined in, embarrassed—make light of it, no big deal—and had asked the bartender for another cola. That had brought more intoxicated titters, and Herb had gulped the drink—stifled a belch, drank it too fast, he thought, chagrined—made his excuses and went home.

Swanson moved to his hat rack, removed his coat and fedora, started for the office door. He couldn’t dismiss the nagging suspicion that something was not right. I’m going to take the records home, he thought. Nothing on TV tonight anyway. At his desk, he gathered up the heavy ledgers and left the office.

Darkness faded to false dawn. Herb rubbed his eyes. His wire rimmed frames had left raw red creases across his temples. He massaged the bridge of his nose and rubbed at his temples as he stared at the spreadsheet. Swanson turned off his ten key, sagged on the couch staring out the small window into the early morning grayness. Instantly, he stood bolt upright. How can I be so foolish? It was all right there. He knew. He was wide awake, angry. I almost missed it. Weary with the effort, he refused himself any excuse. The most elementary of accounting principles, and he had almost overlooked it. Almost. Eric had changed the column totals. Herb had added up each column individually and when they didn’t total correctly, he divided the difference by a factor of nine. Bingo. He went back over the entries comparing them with their counterpart in the various ledgers and discovered Pontus’ method.

Herb collapsed on the couch. Coffee. He needed coffee. Could almost smell the coarse grind. There was no coffee percolating. Transposition. Nice. Pontus had used transposition. And misplaced decimal points. And Eric was extremely well off, now. For the time being.

Herb wasted no time getting to the office in the morning. Misting rain couldn’t dampen his soaring spirits. In the lobby, he flashed a grin at Cynthia, “Hiya babe.”                                                                                                            Cynthia’s mouth dropped open. “Mister Swanson? Herb? Good morning, sir.”

“Get Eric Pontus on the line for me, will you?” Herb sauntered into his office and closed the door. He was going to enjoy this immensely. He sat at his desk, pulled out his rumpled handkerchief, wiped at his rain misted glasses.

He wondered how Eric would take what he had to say. Maybe it would be best to take it to the department head. He pondered his position. The phone on his desk buzzed, he pushed the intercom button. “Yes, Cynthia,” he had sobered up considerably.

“Eric—Mister Pontus—is on the line, Mister Swanson.”

“Thank you,” Herb pushed line two. “Yes, Eric.”

“Hey, Swanson, ol’ buddy. What can I do for you today? Want to meet for a drink after lunch? Maybe a rum and coke?” Pontus’ laughter was raucous. Herb grimaced, held the phone away from his ear.

“We need to discuss the, ah, annual report, Eric. Can you come to my office at, say, one o’clock today?”

“Sure, sport. Want me to bring my secretary to take notes? She can take your suit out to be pressed while we talk,” more guffaws. “You gotta do something about those dull brown suits, Herb ol’ buddy. Think blue pin stripe, make ya look taller.” Herb hung up to the sounds of Pontus’ snorts and laughter.

He thought about the announcement. Pleasurable sensations rippled through his stomach. A thrill like a roller coaster ride. He rose to look out the window. There sat the yellow Porsche 911, the squalid Beetle a few spaces away. He sat again, reached for the intercom.

“Yes, Mister Swanson, uh, Herb?” Cynthia was still confused by Herb’s abrupt change in demeanor.

“Get Mister Shuster on the phone, please, Cynthia.”

Herb outlined his findings to the department head. “Are you certain, Herb?” Mansfield Shuster questioned the head accountant. “These are serious accusations you are making.”

“No question, Mister Shuster. I can have them verified by one of the other accountants or an outside source, if you like.” Herb made no mention of his one o’clock meeting with Eric.

Pontus arrived in Herb’s office at one forty five. “So what seems to be the problem, sport?”  Confidence. Herb felt triumphant. He would crush Eric.

“Sit down, Eric.” Herb motioned to a chair, close to the window. He wanted a clear route to the office door, just in case.

“Thanks, but no thanks. Listen, can we make this quick? I’ve got a… ” Pontus winked, nodded toward the lobby. “…important luncheon engagement.”

“Sure, Eric.” Herb chewed his lip, watched Pontus’ face. “I spent all last night going over your books.”

Eric stood hipshot, shifted his weight to one foot, crossed his arms, his smile disappeared under a nervous scowl. “Yeah, so?”

“You know, you, well…you live pretty high on the hog, Eric.” Keep it casual, Herb thought. “Your yellow Porsche. How much does a car like that cost, anyway?”  Herb could smell Pontus’  heavy scented cologne—Polo. Too expensive for accountants. He tried not to stare at Pontus’ expensive gray double breasted herringbone;  he envied Eric’s lavish lifestyle.

“A lot more than you’ll ever make, sport. What are you getting at, Swanson?”

Herb’s courage cascaded into a pool of self contempt, he pulled his office chair between himself and Pontus, not sure of Eric’s reaction. Pontus exposed a few even white front teeth, no grin, not even a smile. It left Herb’s blood cold. He glanced down at the floor. “Uh, nothing Eric. Nothing at all. Just wanted to let you know, uh…,” Herb stalled for an excuse. He had every intention of exposing Pontus but…. “I, um, finished the review and, uh, I’ll send the accounts back later this week.”

Eric laughed, a humorless chortle. He rose from his seat. Herb stepped back involuntarily. Pontus noticed, guffawed, shaking his head as he left the office.

Herb blew out a held breath. Despite his fear, he had hoped Pontus would explode, angrily deny, confess, something, anything besides his cold, casual dismissal. Herb felt a little cheated, somehow. And relieved. He knew he was no hero. He picked up the phone, dialed Mansfield Shuster’s private number. He explained the meeting, told Shuster he had the documented proof, went into detail about the embezzlement. Shuster said he would make the phone call.

“Would you mind, sir, if I was present when you tell him?” Herb felt he deserved that much, to see the pride of the secretarial pool brought to his knees. In public.

The police, Mansfield Shuster, Eric Pontus, and Herb stood in Pontus’ office. Eric had already been cuffed. Red faced, blubbering, he stammered his innocence.

“It’s no use, Eric,” Herb said. He stared at the opened briefcase on Pontus’ desk, the Swissair ticket and brochures of Lucerne. “I documented every transaction.” He turned to the officer, taking great pleasure in his revelation. “He used transposition to steal funds from the Public Relations department budget. Changing digits around in a number or set of numbers, instead of, for example, $9,111.00, it could be $1,119.00. He made deposits to a Swiss bank account.”

“How did you find out, you piece of….”

Herb smiled. “It’s an elemental accounting principle, Eric. You almost had me fooled. Almost.” The officer lead Pontus outside to the squad car. The entire secretarial pool streamed outside to watch, whispering, amazed. Herb watched as well, feeling a renewed sense of pique. Even caught red handed, Eric Pontus drew attention everywhere he went, even to jail.

Herb Swanson had a new hobby. He had his photography gear stowed behind the driver’s seat, not the old Pentax slr, a new Nikon 35mm digital, with an assortment of lenses in a separate case. He straightened the lapels of his blue pin stripe suit, adjusted the seat in his yellow Porsche 911, tuned the radio to his favorite classical station. Cynthia Comstock sat beside him, caressing the Italian leather bucket seat.

“So you see, Cynthia, it’s just a matter of an elemental accounting principle.” Herb put the car in gear and smiled at his date as he mashed the accelerator and the snappy sports car squealed out of the parking lot. Eric had the right idea. It just needed a bit of tweaking. He just wasn’t smart enough to follow through.

The End

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