She made the dumb mistake of trying to steal it all right before Christmas. Three weeks before, to be exact, and if she’d picked any other month, I probably wouldn’t have caught on quite as quickly.
She didn’t come in a villain package. She was 26, married with two kids, and when you met her, there were a few things you noticed right away: she had some sort of defect with one eye (it didn’t track with the other) and then inside of a couple of seconds, you quit noticing because of her smile and warmth and vivaciousness. She was pretty. Not gorgeous, not beautiful, but pretty, and she made you comfortable.
I needed someone capable in the office, someone versatile, so I could finally have time to write.
I interviewed a lot of people for that position–accounting / clerical –and there were several very good candidates, so if the top two choices had fallen through, there were others. She had a personality that caught my attention and there was an easy-going charm about her that I knew would give her an edge on the phone. Still, had it not been for her stellar references, there might have been a toss-up between her and the next candidate, a young man who probably had a little more experience, but who interviewed with the personality of a stick of wood.
His references barely remembered him, so they couldn’t really vouch for him. Her references raved. The references were from very large corporations; I’d looked up the numbers myself instead of relying on the ones on her resumé, called directly, went through the phone system and the secretaries, so I knew the people I spoke to were legitimately employed at the companies in question.
They could not say enough good things about her.
So why wasn’t she still working for them? I’d ask, and was told that it was an unfortunate matter of their company having completed a big project and then laying off extra employees, last one hired, first one fired. She had the unlucky misfortune to be late to the game. This was typical in the area–there had been a lot of construction surges and downturns in the previous five years, so I understood how that could happen. I understood how a young mom could be trying to build a career only to have it sidetracked, and with the economy the way it was, have a hard time finding a stable place. Each reference stated they’d hire her back if given a choice.
I would find out later that those references were relatives or, in one case, a friend of hers.
It’s hard to prove fraud for a telephone reference, especially when it didn’t occur to you to record it.
The insurance background check was the last hurdle, and she was clear. She went to work for us some time in October. We had a new accounting software package, but since it was new to us, we also did one other thing: we made her manually track what she did for the day. We were a small company–tiny, actually, so this wasn’t abnormally difficult.
This was pre-online banking. This was get-a-statement-once-a-month times, and if you wanted your bank balance, you had to call and talk to an officer of the bank because the tellers wouldn’t tell you over the phone.
She made me laugh. Daily. I enjoyed her company, and really liked her. We had a lot in common. She was one of those rare people I didn’t mind being around every day, and I’m fairly grouchy and introverted and would just as soon be a hermit most of the time, so this was a major feat. Three weeks before Christmas, she came into the office in tears. She’d just discovered she was pregnant for her third child. She couldn’t afford to lose her job, and didn’t want us to think she’d misled us. We told her not to worry–she had already won over some of our crustiest clients and she worked hard, was very efficient, and we figured we’d find a way to work something out. We couldn’t offer her maternity leave, but when it was time for the baby, I could hold down the fort for a while ’til she could come back. She was elated.
I think she cashed the first forged check that day.
She came in for the rest of that week and everything seemed perfectly normal. We talked about what we were going to get for our kids for Christmas. Our Christmas was going to be relatively small that year because we were climbing out of a construction slump and we were just that month starting to have a real turn-around. We didn’t want to over-do it or be too optimistic, and there were a lot of reasons not to be. We hadn’t even done the first bit of Christmas shopping yet, but that was okay because that year was going to be the first in a couple of years that we were going to be able to shop a little ahead of time instead of just a day or two before. I didn’t explain that to her–almost everyone here in this state had been through some tough times. Just being able to afford to hire her had been a victory; we’d seen companies two or three times our size go belly up the previous few years and we’d managed to survive.
She told me the things she’d been able to buy her kids. It was going to be one of their best Christmases, she said, because she finally had a good job.
We’d not only survived, we’d managed to grow, and now, here was a young family, benefiting.
She’d cashed several more forged checks by that Friday.
She started missing work the first couple of days the next week. Morning sickness. I understood that, and she was great about calling in.
I went to make a bank transfer, and there was no money in the accounts. None.
I double-checked the accounting program, and there was money according to the balance showing on the computer, but somewhere, there had been a mistake. Thousands of dollars of a mistake, and my honest first assumption was that we’d written a check we’d forgotten about and hadn’t remembered to tell her, or else we’d input a deposit twice. I then compared the computer register against the manual one, and the balances were the same.
But some of the entries were vastly different.
Which didn’t make sense. The room grew icy cold, my hands felt numb and there was a chill up my spine. It was a surreal out-of-body moment where I could not believe what I was seeing. I was almost certain I was making a mistake, that there was a logical explanation for this, and it had to be somewhere in that data. Because it could not have been purposeful. The numbers on the ledger grew large and bold as the world around it grew fuzzy and I thought you’re making it up. You’re just making it up because somewhere you screwed up and you’re just wishing for a better excuse. Right? I couldn’t possibly have been that naïve.
I went to the bank the next day and had a copy of all of the checks pulled. The bank was quick to help, and by that afternoon, I had copies of everything that had cleared to that date. I normally wouldn’t have seen these checks for another two weeks, when the bank statement came in.
Multiple checks had been made out either to cash or to her or to people we didn’t know. The signatures had been forged; she’d endorsed the back. When I compared these to the checks on the computer, I discovered a flaw in that program (which ended up being the demise of that program, nationally). A check could be written, printed and then voided and never show up as having ever been written.
By going through the blank checks in the office, I realized there was one more check out. It would turn out to be a very large one, which coincidentally matched the amount of the very large check we were expecting. I put a hold on the account.
Two days before Christmas.
The police issued a warrant for her arrest. She called in sick again that day. Then she said she didn’t think she’d be able to come back to work for us because the morning sickness had gotten so bad, and she knew it wasn’t fair to us to not work for another month. She’d understand that we would need to replace her. We confronted her over the phone with the facts; explained that there was a warrant for her arrest. Explained that she had one shot at not being arrested for Christmas, and that was to turn herself in. We’d work with her through a first-offenders program, and this was strictly because she had kids. She’d have to plead guilty, but she’d get to stay out of jail and repay while she was on probation and, once she’d paid everything and if she stayed clean for a year, her record would be expunged. She agreed.
She failed to show up the next day.
The police don’t care if someone’s having Christmas, by the way, if they’ve stolen thousands of dollars. In fact, it often makes the criminal a wee bit easier to find.
There were witnesses, handwriting proofs, and evidence galore. When the police arrested her, her car was packed with luggage–she was moving to Arizona, to live with a sister.
Later, I would see a photo of evidence of all sorts of new toys and electronics they’d found at her house.
We really didn’t have much of a Christmas that year; wouldn’t have had any, had it not been for family who stepped in and helped. My kids were 8 and 4.
I was 28.
Crime wasn’t new to me. I’d had enough of it in my life at that point, and was aware enough of the world to realize it was common. But it was the first time I’d experienced a targeted, systematic con aimed directly at me. It was the first time my judgment had completely failed. Everyone who’d met her was stunned, but that didn’t help assuage the fear that if I could so completely misperceive something of that magnitude, how the hell could I trust what I believed about anyone else?
The financial damage she did lasted a very long time. The economy here was about to take another downturn and we’d struggle. But what she took from me was more valuable than money: faith. Faith in my own judgment, a willingness to trust. Eventually, I’d realize I didn’t want to let the actions of one person poison my perceptions of everyone else I met, and I’d find a balance, but it would take a long time. It would take even longer to forget.
This past Christmas was the first Christmas day I didn’t think about her. Not even once. And I didn’t realize it until a month later.
What she gave me, though, turned out to be more valuable than what she took.
She didn’t come in a villain package.
I write about crime and try to find the absurd and a way to deal with it while showing its repercussions. I think reading about an interesting villain failing to succeed will always hold a certain lure. So what draws you to crime fiction?
If you’re anywhere near Denver from Thursday through Sunday, come on out to Left Coast Crime. A ton of us will be there and we’d love to see you.