Smith was on his knees peering under the vending machine when he heard Heidi’s voice.
‘Hello again. Lost something?’
Embarrassingly aware that she could see his bottom Smith hastily clambered to his feet. ‘I didn’t have quite enough. There’s always some change under the machines.’
Today Heidi wore a long, black skirt, a deep green top, and an open black waistcoat embroidered with silver thread and little mirrors. This was something else Smith knew other people liked to do, wear different clothes every day.
Smith held out his hand. ‘Two pounds twenty-three pence and a pencil.’
‘Not bad. What are you going to get?’
Smith fed the machine. Snacks rumbled out of the slots into the tray and he stuffed them into his pockets. ‘Now I need water,’ he said, holding up his bottle.
‘The cooler’s empty.’
Smith didn’t much like fizzy drinks. He checked his money, selected the orangeade, the least-worst choice.
Heidi was looking at him.
He looked at her. She looked back. The urge to say something grew inside him, became an imperative, but what to say? He couldn’t think of anything, so he stuffed his hands in his pockets and grinned.
‘Well, here we are again,’ Heidi said.
Smith kept grinning and looked around. Every desk in the open-plan office was covered in scattered sheets of paper, with more strewn across the floor.
‘This place is a mess,’ Smith said.
‘Tell me about it. The air conditioning went crazy, like a hurricane. I’m meant to be working on the trial balance but it’s taken me this long just to find everything again. Everyone’s going to go mad in the morning.’
Even though he hadn’t caused the mess, Smith felt guilty. Unbidden, the Hand popped out of Smith’s pocket. ‘Crazy!’ it said. ‘Yeah, baby!’
Mortified, Smith grabbed the Hand and wrestled it back into his pocket. ‘Go away!’ he cried. ‘Never come back.’
Heidi, Smith noticed, covered her mouth when she laughed.
‘Sorry,’ Smith said, stony faced. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘It’s OK,’ Heidi said between giggles. ‘That was unexpected.’
‘I can help tidy up.’
‘I’ve found what I need, the rest can wait.’ Heidi sighed. ‘I could use some help with the accounts. The trial balance won’t, and I can’t see why. You know anything about spreadsheets?’
Heidi flashed him a smile. ‘Come and have a look.’
Feeling very grown-up, Smith did just that.
The spreadsheets were a revelation. Smith immediately saw how you could make lists with rows and columns. Cross-reference, add, divide, and take away. If this, then that. It was what computers were for and it was brilliant.
‘Wow,’ Smith said. ‘This is cool.’
‘It’s a living.’
Smith scanned the sheet, totalling in his head. He flipped back and forth through the sheets. When he saw it he laughed. Yes, that was it, numbers could be funny. Someone was playing a trick. His fingertip mashed against the screen. ‘There.’
Heidi sat back in her chair and considered. ‘You’re right,’ she said finally. ‘Thanks. Thanks a lot.’
Heidi called up more reports, cross-referenced between the worksheets on her screen and the print-outs. ‘I don’t understand the way Appropriations and the Suspense account have been set up. And so many cash receipts and contra entries, it’s confusing.’
Smith didn’t know about any of that, but patterns were fascinating. He leaned closer. His shoulder pressed against Heidi’s, but he didn’t notice as he muttered under his breath and ran his finger down the columns.
Now he knew about the trick he could follow it, see how the numbers flowed, divided and curved back on themselves. Then, when a few of the columns fed off into nowhere the ones that looped and doubled up concealed the loss. Almost.
‘There’s more,’ he said, and showed her.
Heidi looked at him open-mouthed in astonishment. ‘How did you do that?’
Suddenly, exquisitely, conscious of their touching shoulders, Smith moved away. ‘It’s easy.’
Heidi shook her head. ‘No. It really isn’t.’ She followed through where he led her and picked up on something he had missed. They traced it back and it was huge. When they had finished she wasn’t smiling.
Heidi spoke in a soft, conspiratorial whisper that made Smith feel excited. ‘I’ve got to report this.’
He rubbed his knees in happiness. ‘We’re on an Adventure!’
‘Yeah. Adventures in Accounting. Just the sort of jolly fun that gets you sacked.’
‘Aargh’ the Hand said. ‘We’re doomed.’
‘Who are you really?’ Heidi laughed. ‘And why are you here?’
‘My name is Derek Smith, sometimes called Persistent. I’m looking for a car.’
‘Have you found it?’
‘Where was it?’
‘In the car park.’
Heidi clapped her hands in delight. ‘Of course. Where else?’
Smith didn’t understand she found everything he said funny. Go with it, he told himself, half out of breath. This is the best adventure yet.
‘So you’re not some kind of auditor?’
The Hand wanted to join in. Smith stuffed both hands into his pockets. ‘Nope.’
‘How come you’re so good with numbers? I mean, you really are very good.’
Smith had never thought about it. It was an excellent question. She kept coming up with them. ‘Numbers make patterns. When the numbers are right the patterns feel nice.’
Heidi ran her hand through her hair. ‘Look, I’ve absolutely got to deal with this right now. How about going for a drink afterwards? Say half an hour?’
It was too much too soon. Panic welled up inside him. Talking, even looking, was OK, but going out? With a girl, in public. People might see. And then they’d know. ‘I– No, I can’t.’
‘Oh. All right.’ She looked so disappointed.
Smith had the most brilliant idea of his life. It was so good it rooted him to the spot. ‘Tomorrow! What about tomorrow?’
Smith took a deep breath. ‘Yes. I’m sure. I want to, I’d like it. Definitely. Indubitably. Absolutely.’
‘All right, then. It’s a date.’ Heidi fanned herself with her hand. ‘I mean, we have an appointment. For a drink.’
‘Yes. Great. Got to go. See you then.’
Heidi gave a small wave. ‘See you tomorrow.’
Smith arrived at the lifts with no knowledge of how he got there. His finger hovered over the ‘Down’ button. If he left the building how would he get back in? He grinned and pressed the ‘Up’ button instead. He’d spend another day in the tunnels. His toothbrush was tucked in its usual pocket, his fleece bulged with chocolate, biscuits and crisps and he had more drink. He’d be fine, and this time he’d lie low and play no games. Tomorrow evening he’d meet Heidi and they would Go Out For A Drink.
The lift arrived, the doors slid open. Smith stepped in and pressed the button for the top floor. He felt calm and excited at the same time.
‘Now you’ve done it,’ the Hand said.
‘Who asked you?’ Smith replied.
To be continued…