There’s nothing else I can do after I leave Alasdair’s apartment and I’m feeling pretty low, so I phone Erin and she says she’ll meet me for dinner. I book a table at the new restaurant which has opened in the east end of the town. It’s expensive but I pretend I don’t care, like money’s no object. I barely wince as we select starters and then a main course and a couple of bottles of wine. Erin wants to go half but I’m old fashioned and trying to make an impression, so I brush her offer aside and clench my teeth behind a suave smile.
At first, we’re quiet, talking mainly about the fire at my office and my work prospects. I try to put a gloss on it but Erin can see through me. She’s really sympathetic. Then the wine starts to take and we talk about everything and I think I’m in love. Even if she didn’t have those deep, hazel eyes and short, dark hair and that small, perfectly shaped face and wasn’t dressed with an elegance that makes heads turn and stay turned, I’d still be losing all control just because we’re like kindred spirits.
Over coffee she asks about my investigation. ‘What will you do now?’ she asks.
‘Write my will.’
‘That’s not funny.’
‘I reckon I’ve got a bit of time. I don’t think Studley-Brown will be back. That was just bluff. It’s George Mackie who worries me – and Tyrone.’
Everyone knows Tyrone’s history, especially after Simon’s headline. He didn’t take long to get that piece of news out there, stirring up the populace to righteous indignation. There’ll be a few more citizens checking their security for the next few days.
‘That was a good article Simon wrote,’ Erin says.
‘I’d have written one myself if I’d had a paper,’ I say.
‘Yours would’ve been different, more honest, less tabloid.’
‘You mean only my mum and dad would read it.’
‘And me. I don’t like tabloid headlines. They make me feel like I’m being manipulated and told what to think. I like to think for myself.’
‘Yeah, me too.’
You’ve no idea how good that conversation makes me feel. I’m riding on a cushion of air, despite my earthly worries.
‘So, what will you do?’
‘I’ll trawl through financial records relating to planning applications from the nineties, see if anything comes up for JD Enterprises or JAYDEE or maybe even Joseph Derby. If I find something, I’ll check back and see who was on the committee that approved the deals, and maybe find a link. It’s a lot of work and pretty much a long shot but it might produce results.’
‘Simon’s already doing that. I don’t think he’s found much.’
I wince. I wish she didn’t keep mentioning his name. How does she know what he’s up to? I want to swear.
‘Maybe I’m cleverer than Simon Walsh,’ I grin, ‘or luckier.’
‘I can help, if you like. I’ve got a couple of days off and I’ve got access to records Simon won’t get to without clearance.’
My heart lurches again. God, she even wants to help me with my work; me, not Simon. How cool is that?
‘It’s pretty boring stuff, lots of files and hours staring at a computer screen.’
‘That’s okay. I like dreary research. Are you trying to find a link with Eric Greenhalgh?’
‘Maybe, but it’s better to keep an open mind in my business. If you only look for what you expect to find you may miss something.’
‘Maybe the mayor is involved – what was his name?’
I’ve already told her about the ambush at Greenhalgh’s place. God, I’ve told her everything about myself. She could write a biography.
We finish our coffee and chat for a while and then I take out a bank loan to pay the bill. I’m beginning to think that the evening may not be over and that, maybe, we could top the whole thing off with a sexual encounter of the first, second, third and fourth kind, back at my place.
Then her telephone rings and she’s apologetic but she has to go and there’s only time for a few romantic moments in the dark street before her cab arrives. We arrange to meet again, so my night of passion has been postponed, not abandoned. I can live, if not walk, with that.
As she’s about to slip into the taxi, she turns to me.
‘We’ll have to be careful, won’t we?’ she says. ‘It sounds like we’re getting involved in something pretty dangerous; Simon too.’
Fuck Simon, I think.
‘It’s exciting though, isn’t it?’ she says, with that smile.
‘Yeah,’ I smile back.
Then she’s kind of serious again. ‘It isn’t worth getting hurt for your job, though.’
‘I don’t have a job,’ I remind her.
I adopt a courageous, manly kind of look, only she doesn’t notice because the door is shut and the taxi is pulling away.
I’m left feeling strangely anxious. Why all this concern about Simon-fucking-Walsh? Is he...? Is she...?
I try not to think about it. I don’t want a rival.
The next morning, we meet at the planning department and get started and it proves a lot easier than I expected, especially with Erin’s password. Even Greenhalgh couldn’t delete all these records. After an hour, I find a contract awarded to JD Enterprises. It’s for a project in the town centre, demolishing some old houses to make way for a car park and shopping centre. Then there’s another for an out of town development and then another for an industrial estate. These occur during a span of three years, so JD Enterprises must have been pretty big and pretty busy.
Erin checks the contracts against the planning committee and comes back with the names of three honourable members who were at every one of the meetings – Greenhalgh, Bernard Ross and a woman called Valerie Hall. Other names come and go but those three were on committees which approved all the applications.
‘I’ll check out Valerie Hall,’ I tell Erin. ‘Who’s the chair of the committee?’
She hesitates a moment as she checks the records. ‘It’s a different name each time,’ she says.
That afternoon, I check the phone book and the computer. It turns out Valerie Hall died in 2006, ‘after fifteen years of service to the community, peacefully, at home with her family beside her,’ - one of Zac’s obituaries, no doubt.
Valerie Hall is a dead end – literally.
That leaves me with Greenhalgh and Ross, but no proof of wrong-doing, just suspicions. Nonetheless, the fact that their names are there makes my nose twitch. They must have something to hide, I’m thinking. Why else that elaborate display of power at Greenhalgh’s house?
‘I’m beginning to wish I’d paid more attention to maths at school now,’ I complain to Erin. ‘I need to follow the money, look into the financial deals and so on. It’s not really my field of expertise.’
‘I can do that,’ she says. ‘Maths is my subject.’
‘Yeah, my degree, first class honours.’
‘Are you sure? It’ll be as dry as the Sahara.’
‘I’d like to help.’
‘You’ll need to be careful… and discreet. I don’t want you getting too involved.’
‘That’s sweet of you,’ she says, and I melt under the heat of that smile. ‘But like I said, it’s exciting.’
An hour passes and we barely speak, but even silence doesn’t matter. I glance up every few minutes and my eyes are drawn towards her and I’m feeling really good about this corner of my life, I can tell you. I even begin to feel optimistic; how could anything bad happen when I feel as good as this, right? Erin focusses on the screen and she’s jotting away on a piece of A4 – lots of words and numbers, especially numbers. It makes my head swim even from a distance. My enquiries gradually dry up, so I sit back and yawn, and she pauses and pushes her chair back.
‘I’m going to carry on at home,’ she says, looking up from the screen. ‘I need a supply of coffee to help me concentrate.’
‘Do you fancy a coffee now, before you go home?’
‘No, I want to get on with this. There’s definitely something wrong but I need to work out the details. I want to get it done this afternoon. It’s urgent, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah, I suppose it is.’
It’s late afternoon when the phone rings. It’s Erin and she sounds kind of breathless and excited.
‘The figures are all wrong,’ she says. ‘Someone has massaged the numbers to fit, but they don’t. It’s like squeezing a size five foot into a size three shoe. There are quotations from sub contracted companies that don’t exist, and sums set to be paid to other companies without any clear justification. There are also amounts recorded as coming into the account, which seem legitimate grants or investments, but which are unsubstantiated by any evidence. Although it’s not something I know much about, I’d say there’s pretty clear evidence of money laundering too.’
‘That’d account for Mackie’s involvement.’
‘It’s not particularly sophisticated. They must have been pretty sure no-one would be checking the details closely. Some people made a lot of money out of these deals.’
‘Like Greenhalgh and Ross.’
And maybe Thomas Oldfield, I think, but I keep the thought to myself. I don’t want him to be involved; I really don’t.
‘I made a quick check to see who audited these accounts and the accountants responsible. One of them is living in Spain – quite wisely it seems to me if this is an example of the quality of his work. The other is retired and living in London.’
‘And the committee chair?’
‘Like I said, it’s different each time.’
‘Shame, I don’t know how these things work but I’d have thought it’d be easier with the chair on board.’
‘If they had enough members with enough influence, I don’t suppose it mattered. It might even help to have different people; they wouldn’t notice patterns or discrepancies so easily.’
‘Yeah, I guess.’
‘There’s something else,’ she says and she can hardly suppress her excitement. I get the feeling she’s about to pull a rabbit from a hat. ‘Can we meet?’
‘Can’t you tell me over the phone?’
‘I’d rather show you. I’ve a couple of things to check. How about a quick coffee before I head off to my mum’s?’
‘Maggie’s cafe in the precinct?’ I suggest.
I’m sitting by the window and on my second cup when she arrives and flings herself down opposite me, breathless. She’s holding a couple of papers which she flourishes.
‘Greenhalgh and Ross were up to their necks in it. They must have been creaming thousands off the top of these contracts. Look.’ She pushes a document across the table towards me and points out some figures. I try to look as if I understand but it might as well be a Shanghai street map for all the figures mean to me. ‘These amounts were paid out to the same accounts on the twentieth of every month,’ she says. ‘If you can tie these accounts to Ross and Greenhalgh, you’ve got them.’
’That’s a pretty big ‘if’. I can’t just walk into the bank and ask.’
‘Look at this.’
She has the look of a child with a magic key. She pushes another paper towards me. It’s a financial record and it shows a modest expenses claim dating back to 1994 and the account number. It’s the same account as the dodgy contracts. I pick it up and study it and then turn and look at Erin’s excited eyes.
‘Greenhalgh,’ I exclaim. ‘We’ve got him. We’ve bloody well got him.’ I laugh out loud and then I lean across the table and hold Erin’s face and kiss her. I can’t resist it. I don’t want to resist it.
‘I’ve got to go. Mum and dad are expecting me.’
‘When can we meet?’
‘Not tomorrow, I’m busy. How about the day after?’
Two days – but that’s good enough for me.
‘Shall I pick you up?’
‘No, I’ll meet you and then we can go on somewhere. Eight o’clock? Will you tell Simon what we’ve found out? I think you should.’
I smile through clenched teeth but I mellow as she offers another kiss and then breezes out of the café. It feels suddenly empty and quiet and two days seems a long time.