“It’s Marge from accounting,” says the voice on the phone.
“Oh, hi Marge.” I try to remember who Marge is. Is she the pudgy woman, about thirty-five, with the thin lips and grey-flecked sausage curls who stares at me in the elevator? Or the skinny redhead with pasty skin who always wears a Flyers jacket?
“Say, Marge, I’m a little rushed. Can I get back to you?” I’m expecting another call. I realize, too late, that I should have let my secretary pick up.
“Actually, this has to do with the voucher you submitted last Friday. It’s the end of the month, so I have to process it today.” She’s the pudgy one, I realize. The one who looks like she went to some high school named after a Cardinal or an Archbishop. The redhead is Franny.
“OK, what’s the problem?”
“The voucher, it can’t be processed like you submitted it.”
“It’s just a parking voucher, Marge.”
“Yes, well, that’s the thing. You submitted two parking vouchers at the same garage for the same day. We can’t process that.” She says this like she’s a state cop stopping a speeding motorist on the turnpike, shining a flashlight down on me, the guilty driver behind the steering wheel. A voice tells me to just go along, just go along. But I can’t.
“I don’t see why not. I drove my car to work and parked it, then I drove to a noon lunch with a prospective customer, and when I returned to work I parked in the same garage. So both parking expenses were legit.”
“Well, now, the way you explain it makes sense. But the expense voucher rules say that we can only reimburse for one parking expense at the same garage per day.” I remember now that Marge applied for a job in my department last year. I didn’t even interview her. I hear she’s pretty smart, but she’s the type who puts her coat on at 4:45 and races for the elevators at 4:59. I need hard-chargers on my team, not a bunch of clock-watchers.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “That would mean that I would have been better off going home after my lunch meeting. This actually penalizes me for returning to work.” I realize I shouldn’t sound so pissed off, but there’s something about Marge’s voice that sets me off. Reminds me of my ex when he used to quiz me about why I got home so late and why I needed to travel so much.
I see my light flashing; another call is coming in.
“Can I get back to you later on this, Marge?” I say.
“OK, but like I said, I can’t process this voucher the way it stands now, unless….” Her flat voice trails off, like she is thinking.
“Maybe if you submit it with the explanation you just gave me I can get it through.” I feel her pause theatrically. “But then again, I don’t see that you submitted any expense documentation for that customer lunch, did you?”
“That’s because the customer picked up the tab.”
“The customer paid for the lunch?” Marge says; I now think she is toying with me, like a cat with a mouse. “That’s probably the first time I ever heard that. Maybe you should share your secret with your friends in Sales.”
“The customer has some ethics rules he has to follow – I can’t pay for his lunch.” I’m scrambling; the words are out of my mouth before I realize I still could have vouchered my own lunch. Maybe Marge won’t notice.
“Ok,” she says, and I exhale. “So just identify on the parking voucher who you ate lunch with, where you ate, that kind of thing. Oh, and you will need Level 5 approval.”
“Level 5? Are you sure?” Level 5’s are AVPs. My light flashes again; I’m missing another call.
“Yep, the voucher protocols require skip level approval for these kinds of discrepancies, and you’re a level 3 aren’t you?”
“Ok, but for the record, this is not a ‘discrepancy,’ Marge,” I say. “So Don Cochran can sign off, right?” I think of Don’s long, patrician hands signing vouchers, stroking my face, doing anything.
“Mr. Cochran’s a Level 5 all right, but he can’t sign off on the voucher.”
“Why not?” My assistant Lorrie opens the door and mouths “It’s Don Cochran.” I see the flashing light, indicating that the call is on hold, and then hold up my index finger. Lorrie closes the door.
“It can’t be just any Level 5. It has to be a Level 5 in your reporting structure. You’re in Marketing and he’s in Legal.”
“But the only Level 5 in Marketing is Marsha Davis, and she’s in New York.” Marsha used to work here with me, before she went to that Executive Women’s Leadership Seminar and networked her way to New York. Now she’s trying to get me transferred up there too. Some folks thought I was upset when Marsha got promoted, and I guess I was at first. After all, she was only one year ahead of me in grad school. But after the initial shock, I was excited to think it was possible, that a woman could actually get such a big promotion in this place. It made me want to travel more, do more Powerpoints, answer my Blackberry at 2 AM. Whatever it takes.
“That’s right, Marsha Davis,” Marge says. “Just fax it up to her.” Marsha’s too straight, I think, she would never sign this voucher. She would subject me to more cross-examination than Marge.
“OK, Marge. I’ve really got to go. This is ridiculous. It’s not worth it. Send the voucher back – I’ll just withdraw it.”
“You can’t do that,” Marge says. Her voice now sounds like my older brother used to sound when I landed on Park Place and he owned three hotels. She’s a couple of steps ahead of me in a game I didn’t realize we were playing.
“There’s an internal auditing rule. Once vouchers are submitted, they must be resolved one way or another. Auditing needs to be able to track everything. You know – to detect fraud.”
“So you won’t process it, but I can’t withdraw it either, is that what you’re telling me?” I try to stay calm.
“So then what the fuck am I supposed to do?”
“No need to raise your voice like that. I’m just doing my job.”
“Ok, I’m sorry Marge, but seriously, what am I supposed to do?”
“The protocol says that once you submit a voucher and a discrepancy is noted, you have to cooperate with any investigation until it’s completed. I just went over the same thing this morning with Mr. Cochran.” Don. The blinking light. He’s still on hold.
“What exactly did you ‘go over’ with Mr. Cochran?” Just then, the blinking hold button light goes out. It is plain to me now – Don has been trying to reach me about this. I see my cell phone vibrate with a text message from Don. “Don’t talk to Marge until you talk with me” it says. It’s so like him – just because he’s the lawyer, he thinks he’s the one who should always be in charge, in control. “Don’t worry,” he always says when I ask when he’s going to tell his wife about us. “I just need some time to figure out how to get out without my wife robbing me blind,” he says.
But Marge is speaking again. “I’m not able to disclose to you the content of my discussions with Mr. Cochran. But I assume you know that he also submitted double parking vouchers at the same garage for the same day.”
“Oh,” I say, careful not to admit or deny. It occurs to me now that she may be taping this call. “Marge, I really, really need to get to a meeting. I do have a job to do, you know. Can I call you back later today?”
“I suppose so. But I have to warn you – do not discuss this matter with anyone, especially not Mr. Cochran.”
“What? I work closely with Don Cochran. We talk every day.” Talk – I guess you could say that. Even now, after two years, I still get a tiny thrill when I hear his name or see him walk down the hallway, dressed – as he always is, even on casual Friday — in a white shirt and pinstripe suit. I can feel the animal magnetism beneath that cool, tailored façade. Sometimes after meetings, after listening to Don’s silky voice probing and analyzing, his raw intelligence making sales managers stammer like complete idiots, I’d be so aroused that I’d almost be unable to get up from my chair. A few times, we just closed the conference room door and did it right there, like two kids in the backseat of a Chevy.
Marge’s voice continues. “Discussing the investigation with Mr. Cochran would be in violation of the protocols. And as I am sure you are already aware, violation of the protocols or falsification of a voucher could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” I hear the Colombo-like satisfaction in her voice, the vise closing around my neck.
“Over a $10 parking voucher?”
“Absolutely, if fraud is involved. As you know, integrity is a core value of this company. We take our core values extremely seriously.” The nuns at St. Whoever’s would be very proud.
I text Don. “Am on phone with Marge now.” Then I speak to Marge again.
“I’m not following you Marge. If I’m taking my car to meet with a customer and for that reason need to park in the same garage twice, how could that be fraud?”
“Well if it happened like you say, there should be no problem. But let’s just say that you didn’t meet a customer, but instead that you and Mr. Cochran – say – met at the Embassy Suites Hotel on Route 55. And let’s say that I had my monthly meeting of the Rotary there at the Embassy Suites that same day and happened to see your cars in the parking lot. And let’s say that I followed you and saw the two of you enter room 225. And let’s say that I was able to get a duplicate of the statement from the front desk as part of my investigation. Let’s say all of that’s true. Then the duplicate parking voucher would have no valid business purpose. Submitting the parking voucher would be fraud. Do you follow me now?”
My phone vibrates. It’s Don. “Don’t talk to her!!!”
“I think I understand where you are going, Marge,” I say. Then I text Don. “She already knows.”
There is a long pause. I look around my office. It’s not a corner office, but there’s enough room for a sofa and a conference table. The Stiffel lamp my parents gave me sits on the end table. “Fix up your office like you’re already a success,” my dad always said. I bought a small oriental rug to set off the mahogany coffee table and cover up the worn spots on the grey institutional carpet. Trinkets and plaques from successful marketing campaigns line my bookshelves. It’s a pretty nice office for a thirty-something, – much better than the cubicles some of my buddies from the MBA program still occupy. And I am destined for more, much more, I’m sure of that.
No more texts from Don, but I’m as certain as I’ve ever been about anything that he has left his office and is on the elevator, on his way to my floor. I can almost feel his energy descending the elevator shaft, like a heat seeking missile, about to burst through my closed door in about five minutes.
“So,” I say, “how can we move forward on this?”
“Well, if we can just get your full cooperation, then I’m sure we can put all this behind us,” she says unctuously. “I mean, you’re probably the victim here. Sexual harassment. You did say you work closely with Mr. Cochran.”
The phone vibrates again. “I’m on my way down,” he texts. When he gets here, I’ll be putty in his hands. Again. But I’m not sure I trust Don to do what’s best for me. He doesn’t want me to go to New York, he says. But what has he offered in exchange? I put the phone in my purse.
I close my eyes.
“He said he could get me a promotion,” I say. The knife goes in cleanly, between his shoulder blades.
“I’m certain this will clear everything up for you,” Marge says. Then she adds, “Maybe your department will have another opening soon.” She hangs up.
Someone is pounding on my door.