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Embezzlement and Resolution

   The unseasonal warmth of the spring day had been dissipated by the evening sea breeze before the sun retreated, falling beneath the line of wooded headlands around the harbour, leaving behind a brief salmon flush which then dimmed steadily into night.
   "Will you ever love anyone?" Christopher Wilson knew this question painted him as pleading, and asking more than he should. But the gathering darkness provided the soft shield, the fictional anonymity of the confessional, so he would cause less embarrasment. Why was he accepted to a point then stopped cold? If she wanted a celibate life, that was her choice. But if she merely found his ardour clumsy, he should be told. He could do things differently. He had loved other women, for a time, drifted apart. With Jillian, he sensed a stronger bond. If he was wrong, he needed finally to know, to stop hassling her, to accept platonic friendship.
   In the silence that followed the question, Jillian wondered why he had asked it. Surely he knew the bald answer. As her mother reddened under her father's gaze, she too wanted to feel that heat, to feel her response growing from her heart and mind, not being driven only by physical manipulation of her body. That was mere dalliance, degrading. She would explain to him again, more clearly. As for others, that was her business.
   "I thought you knew. I'm fond of you but that's not enough."
   His reply was confident. "I have to touch you to give you that pleasure."
   Gently, she countered, "That can fool a girl. I need someone firstly who I share interests and goals with, and then who I can't keep my hands off, and who feels the same about me. You're the right man for somebody, but it's not me. Sorry."
   "How can you know, if you shy away from touching?"
   "I'll know." There was certainty in her voice.
   "You might wait for ever." He was clutching at straws.
   "I'll risk it."
   They had been sitting on the rocks, at the harbour waterfront in Sydney's Hunter's Hill. Now they walked in friendly silence, through the fragrant dusk, up to the winding roadway that separated their homes from the cliffs above the waterside parkland that they overlooked.
   Chris thought she was fooling herself. Women needed to be stroked into awareness of their bodies. Then they couldn't get enough. She'd be the same. They were good friends already. Only the carnal was missing. She wan't ready yet. One day her icy shell would crack. Oh, to be first in line, then.
   At his gate, she turned to Chris, "See you tomorrow. Be good." and touched his hand before turning and walking on to her home.
   Parked outside was the silver Mercedes. What had brought Harold here at night? The two partners usually kept business to the daytime. She liked Harold Heffernan, and his son Keith. Harold had bought into the business, two years ago, with cash and fresh ideas to help her father expand into new markets. The computer systems, designed by Harold specifically to automate this business, had been very successful, not least because of Keith's good administration. On the other hand, her father viewed as wasteful extravagances Harold's buying the inlaid boardroom table, designer furniture for the partners' offices, and most recently the big car. The tensions had been building.
   As she passed the dining room, going upstairs to study, she heard her father's voice through the door. Angry. Unusual for him. She couldn't make out the words. Harold replied quietly, then the dining-room door opened, and her father snapped, "You do your worst, and damn you." The front door closed, and beneath her window Harold walked down the path to his car, belted up, and drove lazily away.
   She went back downstairs. "What's up?"
   "Harold says I've been embezzling his money."
   "That's bullshit!"
   "He's got proof. But he'll leave the cops out if I sell him the rest of the company, for peanuts. He says it's only a hollow shell. I've stolen the assets. Me! That firm's my life."
   "But it's really taking off."
   "I thought so too. But just before I locked up, a supplier rang to say our cheque had bounced. How? We had millions when I signed the cheques. And now Harold turns up. I don't know what's happened."
   "What proof's he got?"
   "Computer records. Don't look at me like that. The figures can be on glass or paper. The facts are the same. Okay, I should have listened to Chris and done a course. But if you know the numbers you can do the deal. You can use an abacus. Whatever report he has in the computer can be printed out for me. Then we'll see. First thing tomorrow."
   "Are you sure the cash is in the bank?"
   "Oh, it's there. On the cash report. Black and white."
   Jilly kissed her father goodnight, and went round the table to where her mother was still sitting, unusually silent. "Oh, Mum, don't be so glum, I'm sure it will all come to nothing."
   Her mother just shook her head. Slowly
   In her room, Jillian looked up from her books, out over the moonlight on the water of the harbour. Dad runs a good business. He doesn't need to steal from it.
   Finally she gave up the attempt to study, put on her coat, let herself quietly out of the house and walked down to Chris' home. His room light was still on, but it wnt out when the pebble she threw it at the window made its faint chink. A minute later Chris was beside her.
   "A while since we've done this. What's up?"
   Jillian told him, then added, "and he's so ignorant about computers, still using printouts, and getting anyone, even me, to print things off for him. He's a sitting duck. And so smart about everything else."
   "Irrelevant. A bent computer system can fool experts. Your dad's no more vulnerable than even highly skilled users. Forget that."
   She grimaced, "So, how can he get himself out of this?"
   "We could take another tape backup from the system. Compare it with the one I stole for you, the night after the system start-up, to teach you how to help your dad. Look for system changes. Oddities. Security breaches. Illegal transactions."
   "Do you need the office computer?"
   "Only to get the tape. Then I can do most of it at home. For some things I might need the security analysis software at the department. I don't have that on my own system. It's copyright and expensive."
   "So you couldn't do anything until tomorrow?"
   Laughting, Chris replied, "Nerds work all hours, so honours students get keys to the Computer Studies labs. Come on. No time to lose."
   "Dad won't want me in it."
   "Would he make a tape, right now, or help me to?"
   "I wouldn't ask. He'd say no."
   "Then borrow his office keys. I'll get my mother's car."
   Fifteen minutes later they were pulling into the office car-park, in the commercial centre of Parramatta. Jillian unlocked the office and turned on the lights.
   Chris went to Keith's work area, pulled a disk and a tape cartridge out of his pocket, inserted them both in the big computer under the desk, switched on the computer screen and began typing. Something began whirring. He turned to Jillian. "Now we wait. Always the hardest part."
   For a long time they sat in silence, listening to the sound of the tape drive, Christopher working out how to dig the truth out of the tape, Jillian thinking about her father, about Christopher.
   And then about Keith. It's odd to be sitting here beside his desk, seeing Chris in his chair. Dad can be so square. I wouldn't mind Keith taking me out. I'd make an exception for him. Even if his father is bent. Lots of people marry their boss's daughter. But oh, no, it's "Don't mix business with pleasure. If I ever had to sack him you'd be in a mess. Be polite to my staff. Nothing more. Or else." She sighed.
   The phone began to ring.
   They looked at each other.
   "Coincidence." Jillian said, nervously, "and we aren't here, so we don't answer it."
   They waited. Eventually the phone stopped.
   The sudden silence was broken only by the whirring of the computer, Jillian walked over to the light switches and turned them off. The glow of the display screen illuminated Christopher's smile. "Why are you worried?" he asked, "We aren't doing anything wrong. What can anyone say to us if we are caught? It's your father's firm."
   "Only for now. And we mustn't warn Harold."
   The phone rang again.
   Jillian flinched. "I'm going to listen - someone must know we're here."
   "Jilly, you said we shouldn't. If you answer they'll be certain rather than suspicious."
   "I won't say anything - we could be the cleaners."
   "If the cleaners picked up, they'd speak."
   When the phone fell silent, they did too.
   Then it started once more.
   Jillian snatched it up before Chris could stop her and put it to her ear, her hand over the mouthpiece. "Jillian - did you take my keys from the hallstand?"
   Almost dropping the phone, she replied, "Dad - how did you know it's me?"
   "I thought I'd go back in and look for inspiration, but my keys were gone."
   "What about yor spares?"
   "Yes, but what were you up to? Not in your room. Chris gone too."
   "How did you know that?"
   "Old, Jilly, not dumb. Rang the Wilsons. Easy. What are you up to?"
   "Chris is going to prove you were framed."
   Chris was appalled. "Hey, slow down. I'll try. No promises."
   "I heard that, Jilly," her father's voice confirmed, "It mightn't be so simple. And Harold's likely to turn up."
   "How d'you know?"
   "You though of a quick visit. So did I. He's got to be expecting it. What's his obvious next move? Don't even think about it. Out. Now."
   "Yes. Okay." She looked at Chris, who was pulling his tape and disk out of the computer. He nodded. "We're done. Leaving now,"
   "Good - be here in twenty minutes or I'm calling the police."
   "Yes, Dad." She put the phone down.
   Chris turned off the computer screen and they locked up and climbed into the car. As they were turning into the street another vehicle approached. Chris said, "It's a Merc. Get down, quick."
   Jillian slid off the seat. Curled herself into the foot space. "Harold, for sure. Who else? Lucky he doesn't know you or this car." But with a screech of tyres the new arrival turned to follow them. They were trapped in the glare of its headlights. "Oops."
   Christopher kept driving, at the speed limit, reached up to the mirror and clicked the glare filter. From her hidy-hole Jillian added, "He doesn't know the car, so he'll wonder who it is and why they were there."
   "But you aren't only tenant. Anyhow, we can't go home. He'd know then. Can't turn back, either. That'd be a give-away."
   "So where, then?"
   "Go somewhere in this direction, but nowhere near home."
   "Up Lane Cove Road?"
   "Good one."
   They turned into Lane Cove road, still caught in the glare, and on past North Ryde.
   "We can't just keep going. And we can't stop where he can get close and see me down here. We'll be at Gordon soon. Then what?" Jillian asked.
   "Stop for a Big Mac. There is always someone there, and we'd be safe in the Drive-Thru. Couldn't get close, and could get trapped by another arrival. He might leave us alone then, or assume we're just anybody. He might have forced us off the road into the bush if he had been certain."
   At Gordon they turned into the shopping area and finally found Macdonalds, the big car still behind them, its lights now on low beam.
   "Here goes nothing." As he spoke, Christopher swung the car into the Drive-Thru lane. Their tail stopped in a bay in the main car park below.
   Putting his arm out of the window, Christopher pressed the button on the speaker box.
   "Welcome to Macdonalds. How may I help you?" The voice was a young woman's.
   "Please phone the cops. We are being followed by the Mercedes over there in your car-park. Jillian Jones is with me, hidden in my car. Her father, at Hunter's Hill, has already phoned them. They might have ignored that, but she's under real threat here. They'll take notice, now. I'm Chris Wilson, her friend. Jillian is hiding on the floor. If he comes over here we're in trouble. Please help."
   "I'm phoning now, sir."
   From the floor, Jillian asked petulantly, "So, I'm stuck down her, huh?"
   "Until Harold's gone."
   Without turning his head, Christopher could tell there was only one person in the car. As he watched, it backed out of the parking space, turned onto the deserted highway, headed towards the city and was soon out of sight.
   "Okay, up you get."
   The speaker beside the car beeped. "I've got the cops. They're sending a car. They want to know what else you can tell them."
   "We think it was Harold Heffernan. Alone. He's just left, towards the city. He shouldn't be warned they are on to him. They can ask Mr Jones why, and he might know the rego, too."
   "Telling them now." There was a short silence, then, "Wait here for them. They'll escort you home. And one more thing, Mr Wilson?" The voice had a distinct tone of amusement to it.
   "Will you have fries with that?" - followed by peals of laughter.
   "I'm starving," exclaimed Jillian, "I want a Big Mac and Coke."
   "I heard that - of course - and what about you, Mr Wilson?"
   "Same, please."
   "That's two Big Macs with Coke - come to the window, please."
   Christopher drove to the delivery window. A young blond woman leaned out, smiling, the bright kitchen visible behind her. "Here you are, no charge - I've never had such an exciting shift. They give us emergencies training, but I've never used it before. Fun for me, but I bet you were frightened."
   "Yes." said Christopher, and at the same time,
   "No." said Jillian, Christopher looking surprised, so she added, "I had Chris looking after me."
   Then Christopher added, "So I did the worrying for two."
   An hour later, followed by a police car, they stopped outside Jillian's home. Her parents and Christopher's were waiting for them on the curb.

Copyright © 2003 Peter Leon Collins
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