A Liz Philips Mystery
A lot of things led to the robbery and murder of Christopher Johnson, but even I was surprised when I discovered a connection to my ex husband.
After five years of awful marriage and five of blissful divorce, I didn’t think he had the ability to surprise me anymore. It’s amazing how one little thing, just a throwaway remark, could have created such destruction.
Chris had stopped off at the cash machine in the town centre at 10.25 last Thursday night, when he was attacked by a hooded youth, who stabbed him with a short bladed knife and took his wallet. He died in hospital the following day.
Even as I read the newspaper reports, I realised that there was something amiss. Most of the attack had been captured on CCTV, but the images were poor. Yes, the attacker had been dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but the face was obscured. It would be a mistake to assume that was a teenager. And 10.25 on a Thursday? Most random attacks were typically fuelled by alcohol and although the pubs would have been open on Thursday night, the more hardened drinkers wouldn’t have left before closing time at eleven. Those who did would be searching for a kebab on a Friday, not lying in wait by a cash machine on a Thursday.
My phone had rung in the middle of “The professionals”.
“Someone had better be dying,” I grumbled. “I’m missing my program.”
“Hey, Looby-Lou. Remember me?”
“Whoa!” I shouted, nearly dropping the phone. “There’s a bit of bad news I never expected to hear again.”
Once upon a time, hearing that expression on the phone turned my spine to jelly. Now it sent me cold and I was suddenly filled with dread.
“What do you want, Graham? Did your pretty young associate finally get tired of you?”
“Kerry’s fine, thank you for asking. I need your help.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Graham! No, I am not going to give you any money. Don’t even think about it.”
“I don’t need your money,” he said indignantly. “I only borrowed from you when I was desperate.”
“You stole from my purse when the Kings Cross ladies insisted on cash up front.”
“They always insist on cash up front, but that’s not the point. I’ve been arrested. My business is going under. I need you to find the proof that I didn’t steal from the company.”
“Goodbye Graham,” I said ready to hang up.
“Wait! Look,” he said, trying to be reasonable. “I’ve got a bit in personal savings. I’ll pay you your going rate, but this is serious, Liz. I’ve got to find a buyer by the end of next month or the lawyers move in.” He sounded genuinely upset.
“Bloody hell, Graham. How much do you owe?”
“Trust me; you really don’t want to know.”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “I should have been a vet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a ridiculous sympathy for wounded dumb animals.”
“Thanks, Looby-Lou. I owe you big time.”
“Yeah, along with everybody else, apparently. Graham,” I said thoughtfully, “the murdered young man in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, didn’t you know him?”
“Yeah, a few years ago now, dated Becky Cartwright for a while. Terrible shock, nice kid.”
I didn’t ask him anymore about it. I was sure Graham wouldn’t have been involved in a stabbing and he did sound as if he genuinely liked Chris.
The following afternoon I was sitting at a meeting table in Graham’s office building with a laptop and a dozen empty coffee cups. Kerry kept popping her head round the door with fake smiles and false compliments to ask if I wanted anything.
Her blue eyes now shone at me from the doorway and her smile made the lighting look dark.
“How’s it going?” she asked cheerily.
I picked up one of the empty cups and shook it upside down over the pale carpet, and a couple of dark drops splashed onto the fawn coloured weave.
“I’m out of coffee again,” I smiled apologetically. Kerry’s smile immediately faded. She gave me a disgusted look and withdrew, closing the door behind her.
Graham and his best friend, Pete Martin, used to make a bit of money buying and selling used car parts. Ten years later Philips & Martin moved from the back of Pete’s dad’s garage to a proper office and Graham and I were married. After five years of lies and a dose of Chlamydia, I filed for divorce.
I called Boyle and asked him what he knew.
“It’s really not my area,” he said, “but as far as I understand, your husband has been arrested and will be charged with fraud. It’s very serious; about two million pounds worth from company accounts.”
Boyle was trying to be kind, but I could tell he really didn’t have much sympathy for people he knew were liars and thieves.
“Ex husband,” I corrected him. I knew Graham was a liar, but I didn’t want to believe he was a thief as well; at least not on this scale.
“How can two million pounds just disappear? Graham had professional financial staff.”
“I can refer you to a colleague of mine who can explain it better; my only interest is in Mr Philips’ connection to Mr Johnson.”
“Well, your best guess, then,” I persisted impatiently.
“Apparently, a Mr Malcolm Wilson was in charge of the company’s finances and we can prove that the money did get paid into the company accounts. Now, both Mr Wilson and Mr Philips claim that funds have been fraudulently withdrawn and don’t know by whom.”
“Is Wilson also helping you with your enquiries?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to reveal that information,” Boyle responded coldly.
I hung up thoughtfully. It seemed logical to assume that the only people who could have made the withdrawals and cooked the books to make the money disappear were Graham and Wilson. If Graham didn’t do it, then I’d have to follow Wilson’s activity through the books.
I scanned Wilson’s outgoings spreadsheet again. All costs, payments and profit were logged in their respective columns and all balanced as they should. I clicked back to Graham's copy. Again, there were separate columns for costs, payments and profit and they balanced correctly. It was only when I had both spreadsheets up on the screen together that I realised what the true nature of the problem was.
Graham’s spreadsheet recorded figures that were just a little less than what Wilson had recorded. This explained why Graham had been arrested, but if he hadn’t changed the values himself, he wouldn’t have known there was a misreporting of the figures.
Kerry came back into the room and plonked a plastic cup in front of me and giving me a withering look, knelt down with a spray bottle and a cloth to clean the coffee splashes I’d dropped.
“Kerry,” I said, trying to sound pleasant. “How well do you know Malcolm Wilson?”
“Very well,” she said, scrubbing hard and not looking up.
“How long has he been with the company?”
“About three years.” She was answering my questions, but not offering anything.
“That guy in the newspapers, Chris Johnson, he dated Becky for a while didn’t he?”
“Becky worked in accounts with Malcolm.”
Kerry finally gave in and sat on her haunches to look at me.
“Look,” she said, annoyed. “Becky is a friend of mine and got that job because she was the best qualified. I recommended her but it was Graham who checked out her references and offered her the position. Same with Malcolm; both are honest as the day is long.”
“Graham checked out Malcolm’s references himself?” I asked.
“Actually, I checked them,” she said, giving me a self satisfied smile.
“And how were they?”
“Impeccable.” She rose to her feet, ready to leave.
She turned her head as she reached the door.
“Do you think Graham did this?”
I saw a tiny flicker of doubt cross her eyes.
“No, of course not,” she said.
I continued checking the differences in the spreadsheets and still hadn’t finished when the evening cleaning crew came in. I apologised and packed up to leave.
The cleaner, Betty, smiled at me as she started to polish the table, but her smile faded when she noticed the newspaper on the table with the picture of Chris Johnson on the front page. She simply picked the paper up, briskly wiped beneath it and replaced it as it was.
“Did you know that young man?” I asked conversationally.
“No, love. Never met him.”
“But you don’t have a high opinion of him?”
“Pilfering, weren’t he. Mr Martin said so.”
“We got the blame. Wallets and things. Mr Martin found out it was ‘im. Sacked ‘im,” she said, as if he’d got his just desserts.
“Would this have been about three years ago?” I asked.
Betty stopped to think for a moment.
“Yes, love. About that.”
The next day, Boyle, Kerry and I were back in the meeting room with the employee folders stacked on the table, waiting for Pete Martin to arrive.
“I really think that I should go and find him,” said Boyle.
“Don’t worry,” I replied. “He’ll be here. He needs to know what we know.”
“I don’t know why I’m here,” interrupted Kerry. “None of this has anything to do with me.”
Pete walked in and strode purposefully to Kerry’s side of the table.
“Liz!” he exclaimed. “So nice to see you again. You’re looking gorgeous as ever.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I responded, dismissing the unmeant compliment. Pete and I had never liked each other. I didn’t see the point in pretending otherwise.
“Liz, why don’t you explain your theory here,” said Boyle, quickly.
I reached for the personnel files on the table and laid them out in order with the people’s photographs on top, facing Kerry and Pete.
“The easiest way to trace a person or person’s activities,” I explained, “is to trace the money they use.”
I pointed to Graham’s photo. “Graham is the boss and in overall charge of everything to do with the company.”
Pete’s shoulders flexed slightly. I wondered if Boyle noticed it too.
“Pete,” I said pointing to his photo next, “You’re Graham’s partner and would have access to almost everything Graham does, including reviewing the accounts. You were also responsible for firing Chris Johnson three years ago.”
“He was stealing from other employees,” responded Pete, indignantly. “He had a flashy mobile phone, an expensive watch. It had to be him.”
I handed Boyle a CD. “If you ask your colleague to examine the files, I think you’ll find that the theft from the accounts started just before he left.”
Kerry’s eyes widened. “So Chris was stealing from us?”
I shook my head. “There was no way he’d still have access to the accounts after leaving the company and besides, his only connection was Becky. Did she say why they split up?”
“She said that he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be.”
I pointed to Kerry’s picture next. “Kerry, you and Graham share the responsibility for vetting employees before they join. What did you find out about Chris?”
Kerry shrugged. “Hard working, loyal, but perhaps a bit of a player.”
“He had a reputation of dating the female employees he worked with?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“But Becky said he wasn’t the guy he pretended to be. Did you ever date him?”
Kerry looked at her hands. If she admitted what I suspected, she’d be confessing to two-timing Graham.
“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “But nothing happened. He said he wasn’t that kind of guy.”
I glanced at Boyle. “Are you putting two and two together yet?”
“What?! You mean he was gay?”
I pointed to Malcolm Wilson’s file. “Malcolm was an experienced accounts clerk and all his references checked out. I believe that his accounts are honest.”
I continued to Becky Cartwright’s file. “Becky didn’t have the same level of responsibility that Malcolm did. However, if she did notice a discrepancy in the reporting of the figures she’d have a duty to report it to her manager. Malcolm was her senior colleague, but not her boss. If she suspected Malcolm of dishonesty, she’d report it to you, Pete.”
Pete folded his arms confidently. “Well, she didn’t. I didn’t know there was any discrepancy until Graham was arrested.”
“I’m not sure I believe you,” said Boyle calmly. “If you had the same or at least similar access to the company files as Graham, how could you not know about the missing money?”
Pete looked pale but didn’t answer.
“Which brings us to Chris,” I said, pointing. “Poor, dear Chris, busy cultivating an image because he wasn’t ready to come out yet. But suppose for one moment that one of his office liaisons was for real, and that person also turned out to be someone who wasn’t what they were pretending to be.”
“It’s that idea that made my colleague so suspicious of the office pilfering.” Boyle pocketed the CD and started flickering through Chris Johnson’s file. “A degree of that goes on in many businesses and we assumed that it was unconnected. But why would a minor pilfering problem from three years ago matter now?” I answered the question for them. “Because something happened then that matters now.”
Boyle read from Chris’ file. “Mr Johnson reported a theft from his desk on 3rd May shortly before he left the company. A wallet was taken from his desk drawer containing about twenty pounds in cash, two credit cards, and a book of stamps, a condom and a small size photograph. A mobile phone and car keys were also in the drawer, left untouched.”
Pete smirked. “He obviously reported his own wallet stolen to divert attention. So what?”
“That’s how we knew it wasn’t Chris,” Boyle explained. “The mobile was high spec and would have been worth more than the cash in his wallet and what self respecting thief would leave the car keys behind? This was personal, so we considered the photograph.”
“A photo booth usually gives you four or five copies of the same picture, like this,” I said, holding up a small size snap. “When Graham told me that Chris dated Becky, I assumed that had happened three years ago, but we now know that they started seeing each other only last month. There were no pictures of him and Becky together, just this.”
The photo showed Pete and Chris together, happy and smiling.
Pete swallowed but his voice was still strong and confident. “Apart from that one, silly little picture, you have absolutely nothing to link me to Chris.”
“You’re right,” Boyle nodded, “until we do this.” He lent across the table and lifted Pete’s file and photograph and repositioned it between Becky and Chris. “Now, it all makes perfect sense.”
I again pointed to each picture. “Graham never was too particular about dotting the I’s or crossing the T’s. As long as his figures added up, he wouldn’t know any better; the perfect fall guy.” I moved to Kerry’s picture. “You vetted Chris Johnson, but the only negative you found was his reputation and that he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.” I pointed to Malcolm. “It was on your recommendation that Malcolm was appointed as Senior Account Clerk. He reported his figures to you, Pete. Becky,” I pointed to her picture, “noticed an error. It wouldn’t be long before someone joined the dots.” I moved onto Pete’s picture. “You probably told her not to worry, you’d look into it, but Chris had already figured it out.” I pointed to the last file. “You went out on the town together, bought him gifts; the watch and the phone were just two. Where was all this money coming from? If the staff were already getting suspicious of Chris, they’d soon look at you. You had to get that picture back and then you fired him.”
“But then,” said Boyle, finishing for me, “when you heard that Chris had started dating Becky, you had to take action before they worked it out together.”
“I only wanted the picture,” blurted Pete. “It wasn’t in the first wallet.”
“Chris had probably forgotten that he’d removed it,” suggested Boyle pushing the one we had towards him. “We found that one in his flat.”
“That’s the thing about photo booth pictures,” I reminded him. “There’s always more than one.”
“Well,” said Kerry, satisfied. “That’s sorted.” She moved as if to leave, but I held up a hand.
“Not so fast, sweetie. You dated Chris first, remember?”
Kerry shrugged. “So? Nothing happened and I’ve supported Graham ever since.”
“But you’re Graham’s PA and you’re supposed to be his girlfriend. Chris must have told you something; if you had passed that on to Graham, he could have cleared Chris’s reputation and put a stop to all this. He may never have been arrested. Anyone would think you wanted Chris to get fired, just because he ‘wasn’t that kind of guy’.”
“Don’t you dare accuse me of anything!” screamed Kerry, her face pink with rage. “I did nothing!”
“Yes,” said Boyle coldly. “You did nothing.”
After Pete had been arrested and Kerry had left, Boyle lingered to speak to me.
“Again, it looks like we owe you thanks for foiling another villain.”
I laughed. “You’re welcome. By the way, I’m afraid I’m going to need that CD back.”
Boyle reached into his jacket and took a look. “The Very Best of Cat Stevens?”
“What can I say? I’m a hippy at heart. You could,” I tried to suggest casually, “thank me by buying me that drink? Later, I might even let you walk me home.”
Boyle bit his top lip; that thing he did to suppress a smile.
“Sure, after all, it is a wild world.”