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The Talon House

If By Chance


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If By Chance

Chapter Three

By Nick

I'm a firm believer in the notion that there's always more than meets the eye. I really think it applies to practically every situation we come across in our lives, whether it's professional or personal, public or private. We always see the obvious, even when it seems to be such a superfluous detail that we glance right over it. It's still there for all to see, pretty or not.

Scratches on the surface aren't always a flattering sight, but like the elephant in the room, we can't avoid their presence. Sometimes, though, they're too attractive, and they grab our attention because we think something's amiss.

It was just that type of a scratch that caught my eye at 7AM on Monday morning as I sat in my office, looking over the profit and loss returns for the previous quarter. The company as a whole, and our division in particular, looked like a diamond in a mine field. That didn't make sense to me because I knew we had posted a profit of less than fifteen dollars in the final month of the quarter.

Now, I realize that a fifteen dollar profit sounds horrible, and under normal circumstances I'd panic. That month, though, capital expenditures were way up because of a major upgrade in our IT department. The company we brought in to do the work ran into some major snags, and we wound up spending about fifty-thousand extra dollars. I wanted to call the whole project off, but Corporate told us to forge on, and that was that.

So I knew there was something wrong. Most likely, one of the girls in book keeping moved a zero by mistake, but the responsibility of finding out where the mistake occurred was mine. Spending the day pouring over spread sheets and A/R statements wasn't exactly what I had planned on the first day of the new quarter, but I knew that if I left it up to someone else, I wouldn't know what went wrong for another week, and I didn't have that kind of time or patience.

By the time 10 a.m. rolled around, I was scratching my head and trying to figure out what the hell Bookkeeping had done. All of my cross checking and reconciling wasn't yielding the results I needed, so I finally decided to stop and collect my thoughts. I got up and stretched, then I decided that I needed something to recharge my thoughts. With that in mind, I locked my office door and headed down to the break room for a cold carton of milk, an apple and a handful of almonds.

If there's one thing about my job that I've always liked, it was the fact that the people of power long before I came along kept the break room stocked with plenty of fresh fruit, nuts and healthy beverages. All of it was free too. There was a snack machine and a soda machine, but you had to pay for those indulgences.

I learned in college that if I ate healthily, I'd have an easier time focusing on my studies. Almonds are brain food. Just like sea food, they're packed with the nutrients that promote healthy brain function and help fight against cancer. I get a rush just thinking about how good I feel when I eat an apple or a banana and a handful of almonds, then chase it down with a cold drink of low fat milk.

As it turns out, the break room was pretty much empty. I took a seat at a table in the middle of the room because there happened to be a newspaper sitting there. I gave myself a little bit of time to enjoy my apple, then I took a long swallow of milk. I opened the paper and spotted an article in the travel section about a resort, located on a Greek Island, that had just opened. From what I could gather from the article, it was a top of the line resort that focused on couples but accommodated singles as well. I started to think about Gerald and me, wondering how we would be received in a place like that.

I was doing it again.

There were times when I would start to day dream about spending time with Gerald. Just the two of us, away from the stress and strain of the real world. We'd find a place to go where no one would think to look for us, where we could kiss under a waterfall, or lay side by side on the white sand of a tropical paradise and gaze into each other's eyes. When we got bored with where we were, we would simply hop a flight and go somewhere new, somewhere more exotic and romantic than where we had just been.

I knew it was silly. Here I was, a man in his mid-thirties, dreaming of a life I knew only existed in my dreams. As much as I would have loved to take Gerald and head off into the sunset, real life wasn't going to let my dreams come true so easily. I had a job, bills and goals. Real goals that required hard work and dedication. Real life was calling my name.

"Dennis, are you okay?"

I looked up and blinked as soon as I heard it, then I cracked a smile and offered a seat to the division manager, Peter Miller, who had walked in while my head was still on a cloud. A cloud that was hovering over a resort on an island just off of the Greek mainland.

"Sorry Pete," I said, sliding the paper out of the way so he could sit at the table too. He smiled and took the chair across from me.

"You look like you're in deep thought," he said in jest, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

"I'm just trying to figure something out," I told him. "Listen, I might need you to come see me later on if you have the time."

"Is everything okay?" he asked, a look of concern crossing over his face.

"Well, we better talk about it in my office," I said, not wanting to discuss the details of our profit and loss report in an open area like the break room. "I was just going over the final statements from last quarter and I need you to take a look at something before I sign off on it."

"How does noon sound?" he asked, and I readily agreed to see him at noon. If there was one thing I could say about Peter Miller, it was that if he said he'd be somewhere at a specific time, he was going to be there. He was one of the people who interviewed me for the job of Controller, along with the Director of Finance at Corporate, Alana Cary, and I've reported directly to him off and on for years. During that time, I've had dinner at his house several times, and I'd gotten to know his wife and kids. He's always been a fair man, but he has no patience for tardiness or unfulfilled commitments.

I worked with my office door opened for the rest of the morning. Having set the report to the side, I wasn't too concerned with being interrupted anymore. I went over the payroll report for our hourly employees, made a few notes to myself about excessive overtime and employees not punching out for lunch, but the rest of my morning was rather uneventful.

Gerald and I had an unspoken agreement about interacting at work. Our relationship was strictly professional in the office, and that was how it needed to stay. If he came to my office for anything, it was so I could answer any questions he might have or so he could hand deliver certain charts that I needed footnotes on.

Being his first day back to work after the fire that took his house, I figured I'd see quite a bit of him. Actually, though, he came to see me once all morning, and that was to ask if I needed a report he had due that day before he went to lunch. I told him it would be fine if he got it to me before he left at four-thirty in the afternoon, and he went back to his desk. By eleven forty-five, my stomach was growling, but I knew there'd be no way I could get away for lunch before 1PM.

Just like clockwork, when the clock struck noon, Peter walked into my office and shut the door. He took a seat across from me at my desk and crossed his legs as I handed him the report. I used yellow sticky notes to illustrate the discrepancies, but also noted that I couldn't locate the source. Peter's forehead wrinkled as he looked over my notes and compared what I had written to the figures on the report.

I sat quietly and watched him read. He seemed to be thinking intently about my notes, but he wasn't saying a word. As he read, he would occasionally nod his head without looking up. Over the years, I learned that his nod was one of clarity, as if he were nodding because he understood what he was looking at. Some people read and think aloud. Peter reads and thinks with gestures, which was something I always found fascinating. Maybe it's not unique, but it's still fascinating.

Finally, after a final nod, Peter stood up with the report in his hands.

"I don't see any discrepancies," he said matter of factly. "But just to be sure, I'm going to take this back to my office and go over it again. I'll have it back to you by tomorrow morning."

Before I could answer, he turned and walked toward the door. Without another word, he opened the door and walked off with the report in his hand, which was fine with me. The way I figured, if there was no problem with it, he would be the one to know. He was a bottom line guy, no doubt about it. If our bottom line looked bad, he wanted to know why and he wanted to know what everyone was going to do to about it.

By the time I got out of the office, it was after five and traffic was horrible on the interstate. I would normally be gone by four, but it seemed like right around three-thirty, I was bombarded with calls from Corporate and questions from payroll and Bookkeeping. I finally snuck out the door and made a bee-line for my car, only to be brought to another halt by the evening rush.

Sitting in traffic, I let my mind wander again. I wondered how far ahead of me Gerald was. I'd gotten him a key made over the weekend and told him to stay with me until he got everything sorted out. I knew it was a little forward of me, but I knew the spot he was in wasn't a fun one. We'd learned over the weekend that the house fire was caused by faulty wiring in his ceiling. I told him we'd find a good attorney to sue the developer of his neighborhood, especially considering that his house was brand new.

I smiled when I thought about the kiss he gave me for taking charge of the situation. It wasn't a sloppy French kiss or anything. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even a kiss on the lips. It was just a nice kiss on the cheek, a gesture I found to be charming and romantic on his part, especially in the face of his loss and the stress that came with it.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, we spent the day together doing nothing in particular, but we still managed to have a full day. We went for a long walk into the middle of the city and explored the various shops and even found a museum to walk through. It was getting a little chilly with September upon us, but not cold enough that we needed coats. Instead, we escaped the cool weather by slipping into a cozy bakery that also served soups, sandwiches and coffee.

Gerald and I both ordered the clam chowder, which came in a bread bowl, and had a hard time finishing our soup. At one point, I noticed that he had a little soup on his chin, so I reached over with my napkin and wiped it away for him. He smiled sweetly at me, and I swear I felt my body temperature rise. I'm not sure how high it went. For all I knew, it could have gone up by three hundred degrees, but I wouldn't have cared.

When we left the bakery, we held hands and walked in and out of the various antique shops, book stores and jewelry stores that we saw. The temperature dropped again, and I felt this overwhelming urge to keep Gerald warm by wrapping an arm around him and holding him close while we walked. He rested his head on my shoulder and sighed, and I couldn't stop myself from kissing him on the lips a few times between the last shop we went into and my house.

When we got home, I drew a hot bath and the two of us got in and relaxed. I rested against the back of the tub and watched with amusement as he climbed in, crouched down to slowly ease himself into the hot water, then settled in by resting on his hands and carefully lowering himself until his butt was resting on the bottom of the tub. I reached out with my hands and rested them on his shoulders, longing to pull his body back into mine so we could snuggle in the tub, but he took me by surprise when he suddenly slid all the way down to the end of the tub and completely submerged himself in the water.

When he came back up, he turned and gave me a smile, then he slid back up against me. It's hard for me to describe how much I enjoyed the feel of his smooth, wet body against mine. I'll just say that it was one of the best feelings in the world, and the best sex I could have imagined wouldn't have lived up to the moment I was reveling in. I wrapped my arms around him and closed my eyes as I felt his head resting against my left shoulder and his warm, sweet breath on my neck.

"I love you Dennis," he said with a sigh, and all I could do was whimper before I reciprocated.

"I love you too, Gerald," I told him in a soft voice, then I tightened my embrace. "I'm glad we're here right now."

"Me too," he said with certainty, but that was it. We didn't speak another word to each other. Instead, we sat quietly in the tub, content to be close to each other. I concentrated on his breathing, taking note of each time his firm chest heaved up and down, and silently wished that Gerald would decide to stay with me, in my home, forever.

"I don't think I understand, Pete," I said, giving my boss a measured look. "I've gone over every dollar we made and spent last month. This figure isn't possible."

"Dennis, I think you're looking into this way too much," Peter said, dismissing my concerns. "We capitalized a few incidentals and charged them to the project. It's standard practice."

I sat back in my chair and tried to absorb what Pete was telling me. In my mind, I knew it was wrong. In my heart of hearts, though, I couldn't fathom that Pete would do anything to defraud the company. Unfortunately, what I felt in my heart wasn't what I was hearing come from his mouth.

What I was looking at wasn't a few 'incidentals.' No, what I was looking at was something totally separate. I was looking at customer rebates, employee bonuses and even an amount that matched a dollar amount from our health insurance provider, all charged to the project. The bottom line looked great, and in a few days, Peter was going to stand up in front of the board of directors and tell them what a better than expected quarter we had.

As Controller, that didn't wash with me. If there was one thing I could always say, it was that I never "cooked the books." In a day and age where investors are tricked and CEO's go to prison for fraud, I was always able to state with pride that I had neither the inclination nor a reason to be anything but honest.

But here I was, sitting in the office of a man whose judgment I never questioned and whose morals I never doubted and he wanted me to sign off on a fraud. I slowly shook my head and stood up, watching Peter's expression the entire time. As if he were a magnet and I were steel, he slowly stood up at the same time and gave me a disappointed sigh.

"I don't think you understand, Dennis," he said stoically. "This is the final report, and it requires your signature."

"I can't sign that report," I told him with a firm tone, but it was just a façade. The truth is, my legs were shaking and I was scared as hell, especially when his expression changed from disappointed to angry.

"Dennis, you will sign this report," he said, the volume of his voice slowly but surely rising with his anger. "You can sign it, or I can call security and ask them to escort you out of the building."

With that, he laid the report out on his desk, along with a black ink pen, and nodded affirmatively my way. In that instant, a lot of thoughts crossed my mind. The first thing was the fact that I had spent years at that company, doing my best work and making sure things were on the up and up. The next thing was that if I didn't sign, I was sure I'd be looking for a new job by the next day.

The third thing was a little more chilling.

I could call Alana at Corporate and tell her what was going on. In theory, I could lock my office door and nobody, not even Peter, could get in until I opened the door. But what would happen when I hung up? Would I be escorted from the building? Would I still have a job? There were no guarantees.

After a moment of deep thought and serious contemplation, I picked the pen up, looked at Peter who smiled warmly at me, and did the one thing that seemed right at the moment.

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