It all came about through accountancy, that seemingly innocuous trade. The trade was not as innocuous as everyone tended to assume. It was a lake of shark-infested financial waters.
If there is one way to hide your theft, your financial misdeeds, it is by persuading the business' digital account books to show that nothing is missing. That is one of the joys of being an accountant: you can hide things within the figures; hide anything you want. The figures do not lie; they merely disguise the truth in such a way that non-accountants fail to see the truth. Financial accounting is a treasure trove of pathways to solvency for the man who can control these accounts.
This was the way Nigel Townsend thought, anyway. He was an excellent accountant, and had been recruited by the Lownie so-called retail "empire", based on the planet Rehome, to show them how well they were doing. They wanted him to show them how they could make even more money; and where the cash flow indicated the business could grow in the future. Nigel spent nearly a year with the Lownie group. The first half of the year was a learning process. He learned how the accounts worked in practice, where the income was highest, and where the opportunities for careful mismanagement existed. He did not touch any of the money that the accounts dealt with, for he was establishing a reputation for probity; for reliability. When you have established trust, you can get away with almost anything, for your clients do not suspect you of any misdeeds.
The second half of the year was brought into his nefarious plans, when he found how he could skim off a share for himself. That share was officially illegal, according to the accountancy rules, but Nigel regarded such rules as mere guidance for the beginner. Once you became expert at the profession, one began to spot opportunities to make your remuneration expand to the level you thought it ought be at; in other words, a lot more that he was being paid.
One of the benefits of computerisation was that the old double entry bookkeeping was effectively disabled. That old standard method enabled any one to confirm that the finances were actually what the bottom line declared them. That standard was miraculously converted into software programs that allowed the accountant to manipulate the figures in miraculous ways. It was a magical process of sleight of hand in digital form.
Nothing was written in ink, so nothing was sacrosanct in the accounting equation. As long as the debits appeared to match the credits, all was well. The ancient system of double entry, as he was fully aware, went back to a Franciscan friar named Luca Pacioli, who lived in 15th century Italy. As a mathematician, he taught mathematics to a certain artist named Leonardo da Vinci. Pacioli wrote a textbook for use in schools in Northern Italy, and here was where the author described the double entry accounting system that was by then being used by merchants in Venice. He never claimed to have invented the system. He merely described it for the first time in a published work, and on that basis his future fame was secured. No one has ever claimed to be the inventor of double-entry bookkeeping, so his repute as the introducer is unrivalled. It was indeed a marvellous invention, perfect for the mercantile needs of the Venetian seaborne trading empire.
Accountants ever since have loved the double entry system and treated it as sacrosanct. It did everything that a bookkeeping system should do. The procedure kept things straight, helped you to spot errors you had made, and looked to the non-mathematician as a foolproof method of displaying the true facts about money flow. Of course, it did nothing of the sort – at least not always – and when you wanted to hide some transactions from the tax authorities, you kept two sets of these ledgers. A set of account books was only correct for the entries that were inserted into them. Income or expenditure that was not entered remained hidden for the accounts. The clever accountant kept one set for the client – the accurate version - and one for the tax authorities – the version that showed fewer income items and so a lot less profit. The latter set omitted all the transactions that the client wished to hide from the tax people. The former set, being the true version, remained out of sight for most of the time, except when the client wanted to view his accounts and gloat over the amount of tax he was avoiding paying. The other set remained open to the tax inspectors, and clearly showed a lot less tax-attracting profit in the accounts.
Naturally, as such underhand behaviour was illegal, the clients asking for this service were themselves involved in illegal business dealings. Therefore a little leeway with his carefully contrived and convoluted accounting procedures allowed the accountant to obtain a small amount of personal profit in the course of his business activities.
Even where the accountant was working quite legally for respectable clients, there was the occasional loophole that a good accountant could manipulate. One such occurred when computers first began to be used by banks to handle their transactions. When interest was being calculated, often a calculation would end up with a fraction of a penny or cent left over, which was naturally ignored by the software, as it did not amount to a measure that it dealt with: whole numbers.
The clever accountant could add a rider to the software program, such that all nominal "leftovers" were amalgamated over time into whole numbers. These were then transferred as a group to a secret account held by the accountant. Such tiny amounts from each transaction were almost never noticed by the bank's auditors, but over many thousands or perhaps millions of accounts, these fractions accumulated to quite a large sum, available to be pocketed by the accountant, and never shown by the accounting program.
Unfortunately, once one such scam was uncovered, all the bank auditors insisted on programs that prevented such "overs" being salted away, and that particular scam became non-viable for accountants. They moved to more intelligent and discreet methods to contrive cash to move from his employers to his own hidden account, or accounts. It became routine to use a large number of accounts for such proceeds, so that any one account, should it be discovered, would show little in the way of theft. Companies do not persevere in their efforts if only a small amount has disappeared from their coffers. The clever accountant makes use of this penchant for ignoring small pilfering.
For accountants such as Nigel, it was in his interest that all of his underhand activities remain undetected. When he left one employer, he worked hard to ensure that no trace of his past predations remained in the firm's accountancy records. Thus, when he was hired by the Lownies, he had an unblemished record of service with a goodly number of clients, that he could point to with obvious pride.
With an unimpeachable background like this, he soon had free run of all the Lownie financial records, which naturally were held in computer files. He worked with them impeccably for the first few months, until he had worked out every instance where there were adequate opportunities for himself to benefit.
Nigel was a small, dapper man of 30, unmarried by choice. His clothes came from Earth, ordered online as an add-on to another Lownie business order. He delighted in making use of his position to obtain things for himself. He was perfectly prepared, if ever found out, to state blithely that this was a standard "perk" of accountancy, and that he had never considered he was doing anything underhand. Indeed, he was armed with a whole series of arguments, many of which he could back up with examples from prevailing Earth practice, to show that what he claimed was in fact true.
He reckoned he was on to a good thing, which might last for years if he was lucky. If the company became even larger, the finance would become more complicated, and so he would be able to siphon off even more money from the situation.
It thus came as a bit of a shock to him, when the Lownie family informed him that they were considering transferring their company accounts to an unheard-of new accountancy firm called "The Personalia". It was even more of a shock when he made enquiries, and gradually came to the realisation that "The Personalia" were not a human accountancy firm, but an alien one: a machine race of space-faring self-aware spaceships.
His first reaction was to dismiss them as amateurs who would be no competition at all. That confidence lasted but a short time, until he found that these Personalia were already dealing with the accounts of the Colony Administration on Rehome, quite successfully, from what he could gather. He revised his viewpoint, and thought about this obstacle to his personal wealth. He decided that this was the time to apply his previous closure routines, his "cover-up" expertise, to the Lownie accounts. This would disguise his unwanted activities such that none of his unofficial extractions would show up, no matter who was looking at the accounts.
He commenced his programme of deletions. In decoration terms, he effectively plastered the accountancy wall, papered over the cracks, and then applied paint to the top surface, so that no-one could surmise what lay below these layers. He was extremely pleased with his efforts. He also made sure that his extractions were not findable in an account on Rehome. His gains were all back on Earth in a numbered account which was bereft of his name and so unidentifiable.
Thus, when at last he was asked by the Lownies to produce the company accounts for the new auditors to study, he nonchalantly did so with self-assured confidence, certain of his invulnerability. He identified the online accounts and the data was accordingly transferred by him to the specified member of The Personalia. He heard nothing more from the Personalia, and so he assumed that all was well. He could go on his way rejoicing, and when he returned to Earth he would have his nest egg ready for dipping in to until he found another position from which to lever cash.
Among the Personalia, manipulation of figures was regarded as an art form, and a set of human company accounts were regarded as child's play, suitable for a newly birthed Landership to tangle with before embarking on something of more consequence. The presented accounts were rapidly scanned, absorbed, digested, spat from one piece of software to another, kicked around, twisted in various ways, and looked at back to front. Minor errors were noted and corrected, and then the whole package re-examined to discover what it would all mean when the figures and procedures were adequately understood.
Being the Personalia, with a fairly naïve approach to human life, they at first did not make any deduction of malpractice. Thus, they were intrigued to spot points in the accounts where there was puzzling manipulations. They were confused by the apparent need for a financial process that seemed unnecessarily complicated or abstruse.
However, they were aware of human frailties; one of which was embarrassment. They did not wish to embarrass the former accountant with his errors, without seriously re-checking the figures. Therefore, they came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to start from the raw data and proceed from there. Accordingly, they linked in to the computers holding the Lownie financial transactions themselves, the original records as they stood before an accountant started to perform his apparent magic.
Copying and extracting all this complex information into their databanks, the Personalia examined the facts afresh. They looked at every transaction, every purchase, every sale, and reconciled all the facts as they were, rather than as they had been presented by Nigel. They were shocked at the difference, and shortly thereafter came to a disturbing conclusion. This was that the previous accountant had been siphoning off something like three per cent of the business' income to somewhere else.