Ripoff by Morgan St. James by Morgan St. James - Read Online

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Ripoff - Morgan St. James

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Introduction And Acknowledgments

A great big ‘thank you’ to editor Darrah Whitaker, who painstakingly reviewed every chapter more than once. He not only offered valuable critique, but gave us the benefit of the male point of view.

As writers, we sometimes become too close to the work and don’t see what might be missing. Darrah has a very keen sense of the obvious, and sent comments like, A strong suggestion would be to toughen up Nathan. Be careful not to make him one of the girls.

May every author be fortunate enough to have a critique buddy and editor like Darrah.

Our thanks also go to members of Henderson Writers Group, Las Vegas NV, who offered very valuable critique during the development process.

It took several years to get this story just right, and we wish to thank all of the people who encouraged and supported us during those years. The plot and scam we created had to be realistic—something that could actually happen.

So thank you to former FBI undercover agent Joaquin Jack Garcia, New York Times bestselling author of Making Jack Falcone, for saying it could have done just that. The details were revised every time we discovered something that wouldn’t have flown. Then we had to go back to square one to figure out what could work.

Thanks to friends with and without law-enforcement backgrounds who came to our rescue with suggestions when we were stymied. Several of those are found in the book.

~1~

My rolling suitcase hit the marble reception room floor with a solid thwack . Everywhere I looked, employees wept, swore or raced around like hamsters in a wheel.

This couldn’t be the efficient office I’d left only five days ago. It was more like a disaster scene in a movie. What could have created this chaos while I was at the National Software Conference in Portland?

Normally I would have taken a cab from SeaTac Airport to my home, then picked up my car before going to the office, but on this particular day I couldn’t wait to flash my Woman of the Year trophy. All the way to the office I’d pictured a grand welcome from my staff, and saw myself basking in the expected glory.

I managed to suspend my shock long enough to say to the receptionist, Bonnie, what happened? Has everyone gone nuts?

She choked out, Th-the door. Didn’t you see the notice on the door? She swiped at a river of tears streaming down her cheeks.

I’m sorry, I didn’t. What notice?

She pointed toward the entry doors. Out there.

I hurried into the hall. How had I missed the bright yellow notice taped to one of the elegant dark mahogany doors?

Under Jurisdiction of

U.S. BANKRUPTCY COURT – WESTERN DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON

Access to Premises Prohibited After

5:00 pm, June 21, 2013

The words U.S. Bankruptcy Court and Access Prohibited sent a chill down my spine. June 21? That’s today!

Everything within me went icy cold. How could this possibly be? We were a big company, respected in the industry. I’d just been honored at a trade convention. We couldn’t be bankrupt.

Back in the office Bonnie and our controller Harold Spacklemeyer were in complete meltdown. Harold paced in front of the reception station mumbling obscenities in a manner totally out of character for the mild-mannered little man. He looked like he had aged fifteen years during the five days I’d been gone.

His hands fluttered wildly. Kimberly, thank goodness you’re back. It’s Armageddon—Armageddon, I tell you! That bastard CEO of ours is gone—vanished—nowhere to be found. He struggled to take a few shaky breaths.

I patted Harold’s arm. Of course Steve is gone. He’s on vacation. Remember?

He shook his head like a sad bobble-head doll. Some vacation! That light-fingered crook drained the company of every friggin’ dollar and disappeared. Harold made a few hacking noises in his throat, then tugged at his polka dot bowtie as though loosening it would help him breathe. Finally he yanked it off in a fit of nerves and threw it on the floor.

Harold, slow down. This can’t be true. My voice was calm while my heart did a drum solo.

Oh, but it is. Steve skipped out and left a mountain of debt and unpaid salaries. Oh, and the checks for health insurance and payroll tax? Well, they bounced.

That’s simply not possible. We keep those funds separate in a trust account. Pull yourself together, okay?

Between my spinning head and thumping heart, I was a mess. This bankruptcy nonsense had to be a mistake.

His voice smoothed out. You’re right. There should have been more than enough to cover everything, so I checked all of our bank accounts. Somehow he managed to drain the trust account and the balance in every other one was a big, fat zero. He—took—every—friggin’—dollar. Color drained from his face turning it a scary grayish shade.

Please, Harold, take some deep breaths. You’re beginning to frighten me. Look, everything was fine when I left. You know that. What you’re saying sounds crazy.

He flopped down on one of the reception room sofas. After a few moments his color returned to normal. I called and called, but his phone just rang. No answer, no voicemail. The next day I got a recording saying his cell phone was disconnected. So was his home phone. After that I called you over and over, but all I got was voice mail. Why didn’t you call me back?

Poor Harold looked at me with whipped puppy eyes. For God’s sake, Kimberly, listen to me. This is very serious. Oh, he knew about this bankruptcy and the pending audit, alright. The—man—is—not—on—vacation!

His words finally penetrated my addled brain. Wait a minute. What do you mean audit?

A team of them showed up on Thursday. From what one fellow said, I guess the company had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for a while. Apparently Mr. Slick has been draining money from all the accounts for the past several months and finally took every remaining dollar before he pulled his disappearing act. I have no idea how Steve managed to do that, and I couldn’t get them to tell me anything else. He paled again.

I prayed he wasn’t having a heart attack. Of course I’d heard of schemes that involved cooked books. Who hasn’t? Apparently Steve knew his way around shady finances a lot better than I’d ever have given him credit for.

A stab of guilt raced through me. Why hadn’t I answered my phone when Harold called while I was at the conference? It came to me in a flash. At the airport I’d reached into my purse to turn off my cell phone before the plane departed, only to discover it wasn’t there. I must have lost it sometime during the conference and didn’t even realize it. How naïve I’d been to think there were no emergencies requiring my attention. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had the damned thing.

I would have checked in every day, but with all the excitement about my award, I guess my ego got the best of me. I’d made myself think everything was running smoothly.

He gave me a shaky hug. Don’t worry. You or I aren’t suspected of helping him. No problem there.

What about extradi—

The flustered little man cut me short. Look, he’s a clever guy. Wherever that snake is, you can bet it’s a country without extradition. He’ll be living it up while we’re all screwed.

Harold made a desperate grab at my elbow. Hurry now, Kimberly. If you don’t pack your things by five o’clock, you can kiss them goodbye. With that, he rushed off to tend to his own possessions.

Over the past several years I’d earned the education and experience to pass the Certified Public Accountant Exam and worked my way up from accounting clerk to CFO of Solution Technology Corporation, a cutting-edge financial software development company. I figured I’d earned the right to also picture myself as a real hotshot. Damn it. Thanks to Mr. Scumbag I sure didn’t feel like a hotshot right then.

I’d splurged on a new Mercedes convertible and when I referred to it as a status symbol, a good friend had thrown a damper on my excitement. Quit being so damned cocky, he’d cautioned. Every silver lining has a cloud, you know. Your ego is getting the best of you."

Okay, okay, I know that’s not the way the saying really goes, but this guy loved to quote what he called twisted proverbs. At the time, I thought he was just being a jerk. Even if there was a hint of a cloud, as far as I was concerned my personal cloud would always have a glittery silver lining. Now I couldn’t stop thinking of myself as the jerk.

Some silver lining! In the space of no more than five minutes Miss High-Powered Executive with a six-figure salary became a perspiration-drenched desperate woman. The air conditioning ruffled my damp blouse. I shivered from head to toe.

Bonnie held out a carton. Here’s a box for your stuff. She tried to wipe a tear from her cheek but instead poked herself in the eye with a long ruby-tipped fingernail. Her eyes fluttered like bird’s wings. I hoped she wouldn’t release another shower of tears.

Arcs of mascara pooled under Bonnie’s eyes made her look like a manic raccoon. I pulled a hankie from my purse and handed it to her. The black mascara stains probably wouldn’t come out, but I’d never liked that handkerchief much, anyway.

I took in the plush burgundy carpet and beautiful artwork that decorated the length of the luxurious corridor to my office for the last time, realizing I was shuffling like one of the living dead. The impressive brass plaque on my door was elegantly etched with my name and Chief Financial Officer. If only I could wake up from what had to be a nightmare, but no sense wishing for that. This was real.

By 4:30 everything had been packed. I balanced the box atop my wheeled suitcase and pressed the P1 button in the elevator. Where was my car?

In all the confusion, I’d actually forgotten about taking a cab right from the airport to the office. Of course. My car was in my garage at home right where I’d left it. On top of everything else, I was forced to find a cab.

During the ride I envisioned my boyfriend Ryan, a gorgeous 25 year old hunk, handing me a drink then serving me one of his gourmet dinners. I needed him to give me a reassuring hug and tell me everything would work out. I’m 35, but look much younger, and so what? These days a 10 year age difference doesn’t mean anything, anyway.

The cab driver scooted in and out of traffic. Before I met Ryan, between savings and checking accounts I had enough of a cushion to last a year and a half. That wasn’t the case now. Ryan had champagne tastes but didn’t earn much money, so after months of picking up all of my own expenses plus Ryan’s, I only had enough reserve for maybe two months. I remember thinking I’m a CPA. Why didn’t I manage my own finances better?

If I didn’t land another job quickly, I’d have to hit the plastic when my reserve ran out. It was like being in a vise with the screw turning tighter and tighter.

The cab screeched to halt in front of my Lake Washington condo. That will be $15, Ma’am.

It makes me feel middle-aged when people call me ma’am. I handed him a twenty as though I still had money to burn. Keep the change and do me a favor. Don’t call women my age ma’am. He pulled away burning rubber.

Well, you’re not going to believe what happened next, but trust me, it’s true. I keyed the door open, took one look at my empty living room and screamed. Holy shit!

When I say it was empty, I don’t mean empty as in Ryan wasn’t home. I mean empty as in every stick of furniture, the big screen TV, artwork—all of it—gone. This day clearly wasn’t going to get any better.

~2~

After wandering through the rest of the empty rooms in shock, I inched my bedroom door open while offering up a silent prayer that everything was still there.

Fat chance! The mattress and box spring sat flat on the floor, the frame missing. One lamp stood next to the mattress. Everything else was gone—the huge dresser, nightstands, the other lamp—nowhere in sight. The overflowing multicolored heap under the bay window contained all of my clothes and other contents from the dresser drawers. Ryan’s closet door stood open making it easy to see everything was gone. Where was he, anyway?

For a few minutes fright and fury battled for control. I needed a cup of tea to calm my nerves. Under other circumstances, what greeted me when I entered the kitchen would have been funny. A Mickey Mouse magnet pinned to the refrigerator door held a note written in Ryan’s big childish scrawl.

It’s been fun, but decided to get my own place while you were gone. I took some of your stuff plus a little spending money. You did say you wanted to refurnish the condo—now you have an excuse.

Love ya always, Ryan.

He put the note up with a friggin’ Mickey Mouse? Rips me off, then has the nerve to say love you always? What next?

My car! I charged down the garage stairs two at a time. Well, he hadn’t managed to take my car. But then, I did have the keys with me and the Mercedes had a state-of-the-art security system including Lojack. I guess he couldn’t figure out how to snatch it. This had to be the worst day of my life.

I staggered up the stairs to my bedroom, fell onto the mattress and pulled the covers over my face. Gigantic sobs wracked my body.

How had my wonderful life turned to shit in just a few hours? Only yesterday I’d been named Woman of the Year, God damn it. Today I was an unemployed, broken mess.

Maybe every silver lining did have a cloud after all, because mine had burst and released buckets of bad luck.

The tears and shaking finally stopped. I reached for the phone and called my best friend Tree—her name is Therese but I’ve called her Tree for as long as I can remember. She let me pour out my sad tale uninterrupted. Silence filled the space for a heartbeat. Then she said, You know you need to call the police and report the theft, even if it was Ryan.

I shouted, No, Tree. I can’t do that. Not the police.

Settle down, Girlfriend. The fool ripped you off and I think you do have to.

To this day, I don’t know why I was so determined not to report the theft. Maybe I couldn’t handle admitting his betrayal.

Look, maybe if you have something to eat, you’ll come to your senses. I’ll bet with everything that’s happened today, you haven’t eaten much. I’d suggest going out, but with all that crying your face must be blown up as big as a balloon. Dr. Tree prescribes a good mushroom pepperoni pizza and something chocolate. I’ll pick up dinner and we’ll figure this out together.

Before I could protest, she hung up. I ran cold water in the bathroom sink and splashed my face again and again. It didn’t help. Red, swollen eyes looked back at me from the vanity mirror. Like Tree said, I really needed that junk food. I wanted my life back.

She arrived with bags of food in both hands. I spread a tablecloth on the floor and we sat there pigging out on pizza until we couldn’t stuff another bite into our mouths. She made me promise not to talk about what happened until we’d done some serious eating. She really is a wonderful friend.

How could he do this to me?

I don’t know, Girlfriend. She gave me a hug. He always seemed okay, though I thought he was a little into himself. She reached for her third piece of pizza. But to do this…

Yeah. It sucks, doesn’t it?

Tree lifted a cake box from her other shopping bag. The tantalizing aroma of chocolate made my mouth water. She cut two generous slices of something that looked like it was so rich it should be outlawed and handed me a paper plate. Here, eat up. Rumor has it this stuff is better than booze for lifting the spirits. Of course, on the downside it has an outrageous number of calories, but tonight who cares, right?

The label on the box read Devil’s Decadent Delight. After devouring the first slice, I forgot about trying to justify second helpings and just dug in.

Rain tapped at the windows like a bad omen. What else was in store for me?

I swooped some of the frosting stuck to the side of the cardboard box onto my index finger, then licked it off. It tasted a little salty mixed with the tears sliding down my face. At last it was time to have a serious talk.

You said I should I call the police to report Ryan and the theft. Well, I almost dialed the number while I was waiting for you. Then I realized I gave him the code on the ATM card and foolishly put him on all of my accounts except the CD.

Another tear escaped. I pulled a tissue from my pocket to wipe my eyes. Women in lust can be real fools, you know. I haven’t dared look at how much he drained from my accounts yet, but he probably took a healthy chunk. In my present frame of mind, I’m afraid after one look I’ll stick my head in the oven.

Tree said, Good luck. Your oven is electric. Look, you really do need to see how bad it is, even if you are afraid.

I paced around the empty room in ever-widening circles and couldn’t seem to stop myself. Tree grabbed at my sleeve and shouted, Stop. This isn’t accomplishing anything. She pointed at the floor. Sit.

I sat. After a few deep breaths I said, The thing is, no matter how much he took, I don’t have a case against him for taking it. The cops and his attorney, if it ever comes to that, would just say he had every right to withdraw the money because he was listed on the accounts. Let’s face it. I’m really screwed. I sniffled. I thought he loved me.

Tree patted my arm sympathetically. What about him taking all of your furniture? Why don’t you call the cops about that? You can’t let him get away with it.

My furniture? I sat there in a semi-daze. Okay, I had to admit part of my problem was embarrassment. I simply couldn’t do it. Couldn’t admit a young stud had duped me, a savvy businesswoman. I can’t, Tree. How can I go public with what a fool I’ve been?

Even though my pride stood in the way of doing what I knew I should, I added, But I swear, I will find him someday and definitely figure out how to get even big time. He will be very sorry he tangled with me.

She nodded. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

We hadn’t solved anything, but at least my panic settled down. I’ve always been a survivor, even if I was a totally depressed one at the moment. I cradled my face in my hands, felt very sorry for myself and cursed my stupid ego.

Hey, want me to stay the night?

I about to say yes, but where would she sleep? The living room and guest room were empty and my mattress on the bedroom floor was no great shakes. The confidence reflected in my voice had nothing to do with the way I really felt. No thanks. I’ll be okay. Go home and sleep in your own bed. After all, I’m out of a job and practically broke. I’ve got some planning to do, so I think I’d rather be alone tonight.

She left around eleven. Both of us swore Ryan wouldn’t get the last laugh. No way.

We hugged and bumped fists at the door. Once she was gone I wanted to hide for at least a week, if not forever, but went into my office instead and plopped onto my desk chair.

Trying to feel optimistic, I forced myself to log onto the bank’s website. How lame is that? How could I possibly have thought he would only take a little? Every account Ryan hit had the same big fat zero. My checks and withdrawal slips were missing. Every credit card I hadn’t taken with me was gone.

At least he wasn’t able to drain my CD, but all that meant was if I cashed it in I’d be able to hang on for maybe another month. When Ryan pulled the rug out from under someone he did a thorough job. I’d fallen flat on my butt with a resounding thump.

I stopped searching long enough to make a few calls. All those credit card companies have people on duty 24/7. With any luck he hadn’t charged my cards to the limit, and I had to get his name off every account. Fool! Fool!

The next thing on my mental to-do list was to find employment. I logged on to GetAJob.com and told myself I should be able to land another job way before I was forced to hold up a sign on a street corner saying, CPA will calculate for food.

One ad jumped out from the rest and I immediately applied online. God bless modern technology. Imagine applying for a job at 1:30 in the morning.

"THE WORLD’S BEST KEPT SECRET. Make Big Bucks Selling To The Government. Are you a sales executive willing to travel? Forming new national sales team. Positions available for home-based sales executives in 20 national regions. Also interviewing for Seattle-based controller, office manager, and project managers.

Details at www.FACR.gov/getjob."

If they were offering big bucks to the sales executives, maybe that would be the case for the controller as well. Their opening statement intrigued me: The World’s Best Kept Secret. What was that about?

~3~

Whatever you’ve heard about the wheels of the government moving like molasses definitely didn’t apply in this case. Early the following morning I received an email reply.

Miss Martin,

I’m enthused that you live in Seattle and have such impressive credentials. Please confirm an appointment for a personal interview tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. Federal Association of Correctional Reform, 527 South 1st Avenue, Suite 600.

Julia Harris, Director,

Consulting Resource Services.

Federal Association Correctional Reform

Could salvation possibly be mine this fast? What if Federal Association of Correctional Reform turned out to be what it sounded like—part of the federal prison system? My elation ebbed just a bit, but at this point a job was a job, and I needed one desperately.

At two o’clock the next afternoon I entered the Consulting Resource Services executive offices, definitely surprised to see expensive-looking artwork and a granite reception station. At first I thought I was in the wrong suite.

Maybe the horror story awhile back about our government paying $8,000 apiece for toilet seats was actually true. I checked out the rest of the luxurious lobby.

Most of the chairs were already taken by attractive, well-dressed women and men, but I spotted a vacant one at the far end of the room. The whole scene looked like a theatrical cattle call. At least, I think that’s what they call it when hundreds of wannabe actors show up