Caroline Taylor, 10/22/2018

Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com

 

#

THE THING ABOUT ENEMIES

Eddie tended to drift into whatever jobs were available that would pay the rent. They never lasted long, mostly because he would eventually lose interest in the work. 
Thing is, he didn’t want the kind of work his education had prepared him for—wearing a suit and tie, toeing the corporate line, working your ass off twenty-four/seven. What kind of life was that?
Eddie’s mother didn’t understand. “What did we pay all that tuition for at Duke?” she’d say. It drove her crazy, him sliding from one gig to the next, none of which offered what she referred to as “a future.”
Fine with him. He was over twenty-one. He wasn’t living at home like a lot of guys he knew. He just chose to drift. In fact, he liked drifting. Speaking of which, he was just about to float off from his present job digitizing old stock records at Andrews, Moskowitz, and James. It wasn’t that he was bored, although the job was so mindless he could barely stay awake, but his boss Althea had hinted there might be an opening for a junior trader. “You’d be just the candidate,” was how she’d put it.
The hospital was looking for orderlies. Only problem, when he’d worked there before he’d had found it impossible to get over the feeling he might be exposing himself to some killer drug-resistant microbe. Maybe he should try the nonprofit world where surely the bottom line was something other than maximizing profit.
Yeah. Something touchy-feely like the local food bank or artsy-fartsy like the historical society. Or would that be too close to home? His mother was a major donor for that outfit, and Eddie had no desire to have her thinking, “at last, he’s found something decent!” She’d be so happy, she’d probably even offer to pay his salary.
He was pondering his options one morning while walking down 38th Street when he ran into Janet Oldham—or Jo, as she preferred to be called. Despite the fierce scowl on her face, she was looking every bit the foxy babe she’d been back in high school. A long, tall drink of a woman with shiny brown hair and ice water blue eyes.
Eddie said hi.
She passed right by. Then she turned back. “Do I know you?”
“Eddie Guilford,” he replied with a mock half bow. “AP English. You were Fitchman’s pet.”
She smiled. “Oh, yeah. What a prick.”
“You got time for a coffee?” he asked.
“Don’t I wish.” She looked down at the phone in her hand. “I’m already late for the ten o’clock.”
“Then skip it,” he said with a smile. “Tell ’em you had a family emergency, something along those lines.”
“Wouldn’t work,” she said with a rueful smile. “They know my Mom passed away last year, and Dad hasn’t been around since the divorce.”
“Oh,” said Eddie. “I’m sorry about your mom. I liked her.” Actually, he couldn’t recall if he’d even met the woman. Not likely, considering Jo had been part of the goody-good A-list crowd, and he’d been a loser stoner.
“Hmmm,” said Jo, eyeing Eddie’s frayed jeans and scruffy leather jacket. “Why not play hooky?”
Jo, it turned out, was the membership director for ConserveIt!, a nonprofit that encouraged landowners to do environmentally correct things—“anywhere from recycling and composting for the small fry to organic farming and conservation easements for the biggies,” was how she put it.
To hide his yawn, Eddie sipped his coffee.
“It’s funny I don’t remember you,” said Jo, pleating her paper napkin.
Eddie shrugged. “I was totally forgettable.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And are you still?”
Oh boy. If he told the truth, Jo would finish her coffee and walk out of his life forever. “I work for Andrews, Moskowitz, and James,” he said.
“You’re a lawyer?” Her eyes lit up.
“Brokerage firm.”
“Oh.”
“Why?” he asked. “You need a lawyer?”
“I might,” she said. “I’m hoping not.”
It took two more coffees that cost money Eddie really didn’t have before he got the full story. Jo had discovered that her boss, the vice president for membership and development, had been inflating membership numbers to meet his annual targets.
“You mean you nonprofits also have a bottom line?” asked Eddie.
“Of course. Otherwise we’d just drift along, spending other people’s money like crazy, with nothing to show for it.”
The vice president’s name was Marty Rodgers. “Unfortunately, he’s our golden boy,” said Jo. “He can do no wrong. The CEO thinks he walks on water.”
“Ah. So you don’t feel you can—”
“If I rat him out, I’ll lose my job,” she jumped in. “And possibly also any prospects for another.”
Eddie sat there, drumming his fingers on the table. “You need a spy—somebody who can’t be fired.” Or who wouldn’t care if it happened anyway. He felt his pulse quicken.
“You mean like somebody on the cleaning crew?”
“Nah. I got a better idea.”

***

Working in the mail room at ConserveIt! was pretty much what Eddie had expected. The mail came in, you sorted it and delivered it, while picking up any outgoing. And then you weighed and metered the outgoing and delivered it to the post office. Boring.
Once he got the hang of the place and figured out how late the ass-kissers hung around, Eddie put his plan in place. It involved figuring out ol’ Marty’s computer password, which was—duh!—PASSWORD, and then searching for the right files. The room was lit only by the desktop monitor, but Eddie had closed the blinds anyway, just to be safe. 
The numbers of ghost members were never the same and never too large, but over the course of the current fiscal year, they would amount to a totally amazing membership increase of fifteen percent, when the actual numbers were—and had been for the past five years—fairly flat. No big losses, but no real gains either.
The tricky part would be matching the increased numbers to increased revenue. Eddie made a quick calculation. According to last year’s annual report, total membership revenue was $978,642. A fifteen percent increase should put it at somewhere north of a million. Marty’s spreadsheet said $1,125,438.
Either ol’ Marty was working miracles, or the revenue numbers were bogus. 
“I didn’t find anything suspicious,” he explained to Jo the next morning in the coffee room. The double espresso wasn’t doing a thing to calm nerves badly jangled when Eddie had nearly run into somebody on his way out of the building last night. He’d just left Rodgers’s office when a large man rounded the corner, making a beeline for Eddie. Luckily, the guy was too busy with his smartphone to notice Eddie. Luckily, the office next door wasn’t locked, and Eddie had ducked into it with only seconds to spare.
“How hard did you look?” said Jo. 
“Hard enough. There is a whopping fifteen percent increase in membership, but the revenue—”
“It would be easy enough to make the numbers match up,” she said, a frown forming above those mesmerizing eyes.
“I know, but what got you suspicious to begin with?”
She looked him like he needed a few more brain cells. “I told you. On good years, when the economy’s ticking along and people are feeling generous, we get maybe two or three percent increases in membership. Fifteen is totally off the charts!”
Lucinda in Accounting just kept shaking her head. “What, you think we’re morons? I see the checks. I record them. The membership revenue is exactly what Marty says it is.” Then she narrowed her eyes. “Anyway, what business is it of yours?”
Eddie leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’m undercover with the FBI. Investigating alleged fraud.”
“Let me see some ID.” She held out a pudgy hand.
Eddie reached inside his one and only suit coat and then patted both of his trouser pockets. “Oh, boy,” he said. I must have left it at home.”
“Uh-huh.” Lucinda pushed the chair back from her desk. “What I told you is public information, so I won’t get in trouble for that; but unless you can show me some genuine ID, this conversation is over.”
Eddie held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. But don’t blow my cover.”
Lucinda had the last word, though. “It might be hard for you to believe, Mr. so-called G-man, but Marty Rodgers is golden. He works harder than anybody else in this friggin’ place. Word has it, he’s even here after hours. That man could persuade people with acid reflux to eat orange habañeros.”

***

“I gather ConserveIt! doesn’t discourage employee, uh, fraternization?” This was said as Eddie’s hand caressed the lovely Jo’s naked curves later that evening.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” she replied as she ran her fingers through the hairs on his chest.
“Will I be fired?” he whispered, before sticking his tongue in her ear.
“Not by me,” she sighed. 
What did he care, anyway, since he tended to drift from one job to another? So far, this one had more enticing perks than he could ever have imagined, so why sweat it?
When the sweat had dried from their exertions, however, Eddie began to wonder. He didn’t want to mess things up at ConserveIt! Leaving jobs had always been his decision, not the other way around. He made a note to check the employee manual.
Two weeks later, Jo cornered Eddie in the mail room. “Haven’t you discovered anything yet?” she asked, arms crossed in front of her.
“No,” he said. “Apparently, your vice president for membership and development is so good he can sell orange habañeros to people with acid reflux.”
“What?” Jo looked puzzled, and then she crimped the corners of her mouth. “So no hanky-panky with the numbers?”
“None.”
“You can prove it?”
“Lucinda in Accounting.”
“Shit.” She started pacing up and down the aisle by the mail slots. “I want him out of here.”
“So I gather.” Eddie stepped in front of Jo and pulled her close for a kiss. “Later?” He whispered.
She jerked away. “Maybe. But you should be careful. Somebody might walk in.” Then she gave him that melting smile that turned his insides to putty. “You’re a smart guy, Eddie. I bet you could figure out a way to make it look like Marty’s up to no good.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But why? Why not just accept the fact that the guy’s damn good at recruiting new members? Isn’t that what you want? More money to do what you’re here for?”
Jo shook her head like he’d said something really dumb. “I want him gone, Eddie. What part of that don’t you understand?”
The why of it, perhaps? It took up a great deal of Eddie’s thinking as the day wore on, so much so that he put the wrong mail in the wrong slots for a lot of employees and got called on the carpet for it by his supervisor. 
Unfortunately, later—as in him asking for another romp in the sheets with Jo—did not pan out. She was, as she put it, “crashing on a rush project.” If she’d been his mother’s age, shampooing her hair would have been the excuse.
Time to move on, a little voice in his head kept saying. But Eddie wasn’t quite ready. Jo wouldn’t be “crashing on a rush project” tomorrow, after all. He’d already begun to suspect that their intimacy, while genuine on his part, might be just a tiny bit motivated by Jo’s idea of quid pro quo. Even so, he’d be a fool not to indulge while he had the chance, right? Except no way could he see himself crossing that moral line into territory that involved setting up a guy who had done nothing wrong.
In the morning, Eddie awoke with one thought running through his head: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. He went through the routine of sorting, delivering, and handling the mail and texted Jo to say he couldn’t see her after work because his mother was demanding his presence at home for supper. 
Instead, he let himself back into Marty Rodgers’s office. Closing the blinds, he sat down behind the desk and waited, even dozing off for a few minutes until he heard the elevator ping down the hall. This was followed by heavy footsteps heading his way. “Be Marty,” he whispered to the empty room, and was rewarded by the sound of the door opening, followed by the overhead lights coming on.
“Hey!” said a big football player-type guy with a bald head. “Who are you?”
“A friend,” said Eddie, leaning back in the chair.
“I don’t think so,” said Rodgers. “We don’t keep any money in here, so why don’t you take my computer and get the hell out? It’s Windows 7, by the way. You’d be doing me a big favor.”
“I’m not a thief,” said Eddie. “I just have a couple of questions.”
“Then send me a text.” The man reached inside his jeans pocket and pulled out a crumpled business card, tossing it across the desk.
Eddie sat there. “This won’t take long.”
“It’s already taken too long. Now get the hell out.” Rodgers pointed his beefy arm at the door. Then he turned back, squinting. “Hey. Aren’t you the mail room guy?”
“Yep,” said Eddie. “I’m curious about Jo Oldham. You know her?”
“Of course, I do. She works for me.”
“So she’s helping you boost the membership numbers?”
“Absolu—” he stopped. “What’re you getting at? And why would you care?”
“Fifteen percent seems like a huge increase.”
“It is. It’s amazing, in fact.”
“Is it real?”
Rodgers crossed the room, placing two huge hands on the desk in front of Eddie. He leaned into Eddie’s face. “Are you accusing me of something?” he whispered.
“Nope,” said Eddie. “Just curious. It seems so out of whack with what your numbers have been over the past few years.”
“And you think I’ve been cooking the books?” His face turned red and his voice rose as he said the last few words.
“Cool it,” said Eddie, scooting out of reach. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Just, like I said, curious.”
“What does this have to do with Jo Oldham?”
“I’ll get to that,” said Eddie. “But, first, I wonder if there’s more to the membership increase than your, uh, golden touch.”
Rodgers waved a dismissive hand. “Of course, there’s more. The competition’s about to go under, and the rats are leaving the sinking ship.”
“Competition?”
“You think it’s not dog-eat-dog in the conservation world? Hah! There are too many of us doing the same thing, going after money from the same people. This outfit, they’ve got some weak leadership right now and a board that’s got them doing all this touchy-feely sensitivity training, rather than executing their mission. It shows up in their numbers. The percentage they spend on non-program activities has grown to an alarming extent. And in this world, that’s a huge no-no.”
“So you’re sort of like a shark circling the waters?”
“You got it, kid. And it’s working, so don’t expect me to be apologetic.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
Rodgers stepped back, plopping into a chair in front of the desk. “Now, what’s this about Jo Oldham?”
 “I’m telling tales out of school here,” said Eddie, “but I think you’re being played.” Just as he himself had been.
“By Jo? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“She wants you gone. She’s made that very clear to me. Even wants me to, uh, make it happen.” 
Rodgers sat there, drumming his fingers on the chair’s arm. Then he got to his feet, now moving slowly, like an old man. At a corner bookshelf, he thumbed through a number of booklets that were stacked there. He pulled one of them out and flipped through to the back.
The chair creaked as Eddie leaned back, steepling his fingers. “I thought she was being, like, a bit overly ambitious. But now . . .”
“Oh, she’s ambitious, all right.” Rodgers kept reading. “Shit.”
“She used to work for that outfit you’re raiding, right?”
“Nope. But her sister Rowena does.” Rodgers stood there, looking down at the booklet. “They’re not in a death spiral yet, but they’re so close it’s practically a no-brainer.”
“Death spiral?”
“You know. The point at which an organization just can’t survive. The income falls too far below the outflow, so far that even drastic budget cuts and layoffs ain’t gonna help. They’re doomed.”
“Oh, man.” Eddie got up and walked over to Rodgers, who showed him the list of staff at the back of the annual report. “You’re saying it’s too late?”
Rodgers nodded. “Jo shoulda tried this six—no, make that eight—months ago. Poor Rowena.”
“Seems kind of drastic, you ask me,” said Eddie. “Why not just help poor Rowena find another job?”
“Beats me,” said Rodgers. “We’d probably have a place for her here, except for the damn nepotism policy.”
“You going to fire Jo?” Eddie asked.
Rodgers grinned. “I suppose most people in my place would do just that, but there’s an old saying I think applies in this case: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

One comment on “Caroline Taylor, 10/22/2018
  1. Don Cauble says:

    True or not, the story kept my eyes to the screen!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*