Chapter 1

Lydia Hernandez pursed her lips to even out her lipstick. She hated lipstick, especially red lipstick; any shade of red made her look like a tiny Chicana tart. Pale red muted that only a little. Lydia was headed off to a job interview and everything she'd ever heard about what a proper businesswoman looked like was that she wore lipstick. She wanted to make a good impression, so she wore lipstick.

In her bedroom mirror the person looking back at her was too short, too thin and too smart for her own good. At least that's what she'd heard too often, and not just in the old neighborhood, but from some of her family as well.

She ran her fingers lovingly over her beautiful black dress; carefully smoothing wrinkles only she could see. The dress was very chic, very fashionable. Expensively chic and fashionable. It was the most expensive dress she'd ever owned. The dress was basic black, with a dusting of embroidered flowers in yellow and blue, gold and red, across the bodice. It was the prettiest dress she'd ever owned. She wanted to cry, looking at her image in the mirror.

She had loved the dress the instant she'd seen it three weeks before at Goldwater's. The price would have left her aghast before, but it didn't make any difference any more, did it? So she'd bought it. Afterwards, Lydia felt horribly guilty about her extravagance and hadn't worn the dress at all.

"Lydia Hernandez," she whispered to herself, "it's about time to make up your mind once and for all. Are you going to do this? Really?"

When in doubt about what to do next, get out the hairbrush!

When she was little and growing up, Momma had told her how beautiful her hair was and how important it was that she should take care of it. Taking care of her hair had consisted of getting out a brush and stroking it fifty or a hundred times mornings and nights. Never, ever, did taking care of her hair entail getting it cut.

She'd gone through eight years of grammar school, four years of high school and six plus years of college before she realized what taking care of her hair really meant. Momma had always been there to help brush the lustrous black wave, to help braid it. After a while, Lydia's twin sisters, five years younger than she was, had practiced on each other -- and Lydia. With four people taking care of the rain of black silk that fell lower than some hemlines, she'd never realized what a commitment it was.

Now she had to do deal with it alone; there was just her. Hair as long as hers required care every day. Washing her hair was a major project; combing it afterwards was an ordeal. At least if you were doing it yourself for almost the first time in your life. Twice in the last five months she'd thought about having it cut, but there were some ties to the past she wasn't ready to sever. How was she going to handle it if she had to work?

On top of the guilt trip about contemplating getting her hair cut, she was wondering what it was going to be like to go every day to a job, if this interview turned out as she wanted. Or how she thought she wanted it to turn out. That made her feel even worse.

All Lydia's life she could remember Poppa waking up in the morning and getting ready for work. There was no reason to be ashamed of having to work for a living! Certainly she had every expectation that someday she'd be doing that herself. Then five months and seven days and four hours and ten minutes ago her comfortable world had crashed. Momma and Poppa had both been killed in a car accident when Momma was taking Poppa to work, as she did any day she wanted to use the family car. March 9th, 1982 had been the turning point of Lydia's life, of the lives of her brothers and sisters.

Like the rest of her family, Lydia had grieved for weeks over the death of her parents. But, in the middle of the first week, even before the funeral, she found out that Poppa had left them something to remember him by. He'd been insured for a truly monumental sum.

Monumental sum. The words, heard often at first, made her ill even now, five months later. Her father would never have said that they were poor, but their family was far from rich. Poppa had made it clear that he expected them all to do better than he had. Lydia had never thought about it; school and a profession was what she wanted for herself as well. Poppa had been proud of her, so very proud. She knew how hard he worked to provide her college money and she wanted to make him proud of how well she did.

But, after they were dead, she learned that he'd paid extra, out of pocket, for additional life insurance -- a million dollars on himself and the same on Momma. The million dollars had been a shock; the million dollars on Momma had been another shock. The lawyer for the city employees union explained about the double indemnity provision -- if either was killed in an accident, the face amount was doubled -- two million. She had been stunned, beyond reason, beyond speech. And then the lawyer explained the double double indemnity clause -- if they both died in the same accident, the sum was doubled again. A Las Vegas jackpot gone wild, at a cost so awful as to be beyond imagination.

If she hadn't felt responsible for her brothers and sisters, she was sure she'd have refused the money. She'd have given it to charity or something -- anything but keep it. But that kind of money is a duty, in and of itself. She had no right to throw away the patrimony of her brothers and sisters, even if she thought it was going to destroy them.

It had been only a few months and she could already see that her fears about what the money was going to do to them wasn't idle; it had already begun to destroy their family. Up until her parents death, they had at least paid lip service to being close-knit. Now the family had fissioned.

Her older brother, Rodrigo, had moved away from home two years before the accident. Poppa had left him the house in trust for his younger brothers and sisters. Rod had moved back in and, charitably, the example he was setting was not a good one. Lydia decided she had to get the little ones away from that environment, and she had.

She bought a rambling ranch-style tri-level house out on the edge of the suburbs. It cost over forty-five thousand dollars, but that was small change compared to what Poppa had left her. But at least they had gotten out of the old house; escaped the old neighborhood.

Her twin seventeen-year-old sisters had stayed behind. They both said they wanted to finish high school at their old school. They only had another year left and they said that they didn't want to leave their friends.

Friends? Every male in school, every male within four or five miles, knew if he could convince either of her twin sisters to uncross her legs, even once, he would have to do the "right" thing and marry her. Of course, the fact that on their eighteenth birthday each of her twin sisters would inherit more than two thirds of a million dollars did not bear on their thinking in the least bit. Sure -- and the grass is blue and the sky is green.

Poppa hadn't been blind or stupid. He'd divided the money up between his children. Nearly half went to Lydia and a twelfth to each of the others, except Rodrigo, who got only two hundred thousand. He'd left instructions that made it clear that she was to use the extra money to take care of any of her brothers and sisters who got into trouble, a last resort.

Lydia was sure Poppa never figured that they would ever collect, but he liked to play blackjack in Las Vegas and always bought insurance when the dealer had an ace.

Lydia had been half a semester away from completing her thesis for her doctorate in computer science at Arizona State. After the accident she pled personal problems and her mentor/thesis advisor said that he understood and had done the things needed to cover her at the university. But that had been three months ago, after she'd struggled to finish the classes for the semester that she absolutely had to. Her apologies were wearing a little thin, because she hadn't reapplied for the fall semester.

Now she'd had time to think.

When she was a little girl growing up, she learned to read leaning over Poppa's shoulder as he read to Rodrigo. She'd been allowed to sit with them, although the consensus was that she was too young to read. In fact, she had learned to read before Rodrigo, even though he was nearly two years older than she was.

Through grade school and high school Lydia hardly had to study. She finished number two in her high school graduating class, right behind her best, and only, friend, Sarah Fong. Where Lydia was smart, Sarah was brilliant. Where Lydia hardly had to study, her friend crammed morning, noon and night.

Lydia had been carried away for the first few years of her friendship with Sarah. She wanted so much to be just like Sarah! Almost from the start, things hadn't quite worked out like Lydia expected. Lydia studied, but not the hours Sarah did -- there was too much work to do for a family as big as Lydia's. Sarah had a burning ambition to go to a big league school and major in mathematics. Lydia didn't have any real ambition at all.

Poppa never pressured her to become an engineer, but she knew that it would please him if she did. It wasn't what Lydia wanted, but then, what did she want? She wasn't even smart enough to ask herself the question! She didn't love math the way Sarah did, but Lydia did like hard courses -- they were fun. All of the advisors and most of her teachers told Lydia how hard it was in Engineering and how much harder it was for women. And, for those women who made the grade, it was harder still to stay. So, in the end, Lydia had signed up as an engineering major when she started at Arizona State, as much to spite the "you can't do it" reasoning as anything else.

She stayed an electrical engineering major through her first year, but even before she finished the year she realized that engineering wasn't her cup of tea. The courses were challenging, but there wasn't any spark.

She came to like the professor who taught the Engineering Problems class. He was on loan from the math department and was very different from her other teachers. The class was as much an introduction to computer programming as about engineering problems and she found she liked computers and programming, both. The professor was impressed with her work and was looking for a bright pupil who would reflect well on him. Lydia signed up as his graduate assistant even before she finished her BS. She'd gone on to get her Masters and she was nearly finished with her doctoral thesis.

Lydia realized that she'd been drifting, letting other people decide what she should do. She enjoyed computers and programming, but she wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. Reflecting on what she liked the most, Lydia realized that it was when there was a problem to solve that she perked up. Finding an obscure bug made her day, the more obscure the better.

She stared at herself one last time in the mirror. She'd tried to keep everything from affecting her. She'd tried to lie to herself and say that she had succeeded. What a joke! Even this lovely dress! It was shorter than Lydia liked, coming just below her knees. "It's unfashionably long, so it's on sale," the clerk had told her, apologetically.

That was her. Unfashionable. Unfashionable, if short. A person who believed that a dress that came six inches below her knees was risquè. She pulled and tugged to smooth out a few more wrinkles. Everybody told her that she was too skinny, but she'd never felt that -- although she wouldn't have minded being gifted with something in the bosom department.

She sighed, picked up her purse and went out into the main part of the house.

It was summer time; the kids were out of school on vacation, although school was due to start within a week. Diego at sixteen was a good, solid kid; already turning into a man.

Even Rico, fourteen, had his head screwed on right, although he did want to play football. Of all of the kids, Rico had been happiest to move out to the suburbs. He was sure that he was a shoe-in to make the varsity at his new school. At their old school, he wasn't even being considered. The two boys didn't mind staying home to watch their two younger sisters, although they did take turns. Both of her younger brothers were fiercely protective of their little sisters.

Elizabeth was twelve and Juanita was ten. Their parents had been good Catholics -- up to a point. That point had been Juanita.

Diego saw her and whistled. "Hey, Lydia! Terrific!" How many sixteen-year-olds spend their summers studying books on electronics? Diego would have been the apple of Poppa's eye! He was going to be a good electronics engineer some day!

Rico looked up from his own book and smiled. He was even quieter than Lydia had been at his age. Rico's fondness for contact sports aside, his grades were every bit as good as hers or Diego's. Of course, he was reading some sci-fi thriller, not a textbook. But it wasn't as if it was affecting his schooling! It was summer, vacation time!

How could two nice people like Momma and Poppa produce a terror like Rodrigo? Or two girls as empty-headed as Emelita and Rosa?

The rest of them seemed okay, but she worried about the younger ones, especially the two girls. Lydia had their inheritance in long term, federally insured CDs. Three years at eighteen and a half percent interest. If the interest rates held, their money would nearly double before they were eighteen -- not that anyone thought the rates of 1982 would last. It made her dizzy to think about it. And yet, she had to -- she was in charge of their money.

"I'm going to lunch with Jason Fong; he's Sarah's second cousin," she told them. "He's sweet on her. She thinks he wants some hints." It was true enough and neither of them would understand job hunting. Both of her brothers laughed.

It was so nice to hear good, honest laughter.

In the last year at the old place, there hadn't been much, even before the accident. There was too much fear.

People were dying on their streets.

Not often, not at first, but it crept up gradually. It was only after they moved away that Lydia fully realized what they'd left behind. Now, she wouldn't let the kids go back, even to visit. If Rodrigo, Emelita and Rosa wanted, they could come and see them. If she had her way, none of them would ever go back there. It was disloyal, turning her back on the old house; she'd heard all of that already from Rodrigo, from her grandparents, both sets of them. Except here the kids could go out and play in the evening and you didn't have to worry about them being hurt.

She went out and got into her van -- also something new in her life. Before moving to the suburbs she'd either ridden with Poppa or Rodrigo or taken the bus. Poppa had taught her how to drive and insisted that a couple of times a month she drive them someplace, so she could keep her hand in. Lydia humored him, but had never needed a car going to college. Still, she found she needed a car to live in the suburbs. Picking one had been a nightmare.

Rodrigo heard she was looking for a car and dragged her off to look at cars that were not only expensive, but also impractical. Hispanic women do not suffer from machismo. Her impulse had been to get something inexpensive, like a VW, maybe even a Japanese car. Poppa would have been upset at the latter, but they were inexpensive to operate as well as to buy.

Lydia test-drove three or four compacts and, while she liked their price, the size wasn't adequate. The used car salesman had quizzed her, then, about what she wanted. The next thing he showed her was a full-sized van. She balked. "It's too big!" she told him. "I'll never be able to handle it!"

She had never met a used car salesman before; the urban apocrypha she'd heard seemed to be wrong. He'd been consistently polite, pleasant and not at all pushy. He simply said, "Well, why don't you get in, and if you want to, we can go for a test drive. Please, what can it hurt, just getting in?"

She considered the number of times they had already driven around the block and felt sorry for him. What would it hurt?

Lydia climbed into the driver's seat. A "captain's chair" the salesman called it. Lydia could see why -- it was more comfortable than Poppa's chair in their old house. While she sat well above ground and the steering wheel was large, it felt comfortable in her grasp. And, amazingly, her feet had no trouble reaching the pedals. In some of the compacts she had to scoot the driver's seat all the way forward and still had to stretch to reach the gas pedal.

She'd never driven a vehicle with power steering or brakes before; it was wonderful. The steering wheel turned easily and the brakes were responsive. Lydia drove it around the block and found that she liked it very much. The salesman looked pleased; so she drove it around the block again. She knew she wanted it. So now she drove a full size van. Rodrigo hated it, so she knew she'd made a good choice!

The last time she'd talked to Sarah, Sarah had been very sympathetic. Of course, Lydia had called at two in the morning, feeling depressed. They had talked for more than an hour and towards the end Sarah mentioned Jason. She usually did.

Jason Fong was Sarah's second cousin on her father's side of the family. He was older than they were; he was an accountant, a CPA. At twenty-five he'd made partner in one of the Big Ten accounting firms, and a year later he quit to take a job with an up-and-coming Phoenix company. He was also madly in love with Sarah.

Jason was patient, more patient than any other male in Lydia's acquaintance.

Sarah was single mindedly driving towards her goal of a doctorate in Mathematics from UCLA. She had been on track to go to one of the top tier of technical schools, but those dreams died with her father, two years before she graduated from high school. UCLA, while not her first choice, wasn't a bad consolation prize.

Sarah hadn't wanted to be distracted by getting married, or for that matter, having any kind of steady relationship as an undergraduate. Sarah was usually pretty close-mouthed about her specific plans, but now that she was a year or so away from her degree, she'd been out with Jason a couple of times.

"Jason's company is looking for a computer programmer," Sarah told her.

Lydia laughed. "I'm a computer programmer all right, but what do I know about business?"

Sarah chuckled. "Sure, what do you know about business? I told Jason about how much money you inherited. He said with that much cash, a good lawyer and a good accountant, you could buy his company. Jason says that if you don't have both, you should get them."

Lydia told her that she had a good lawyer, from Poppa's union. And the lawyer had given her some names of people to talk to about how to take care of the money. She'd talked to them all.

"Jason's got a computer problem. Maybe you could help him." There was the sound of a plea in her friend's voice. Sarah's father had died suddenly of a heart attack; they had too much in common for Lydia not to recognize her cry for help.

Lydia promised Sarah she'd talk to him and finally let her go back to sleep. The next evening Jason called; Sarah had talked to him first. He suggested they have lunch together and Lydia agreed.

She parked at one of the downtown parking structures, aggrieved to have to pay to park. Un-Phoenix like, she thought. The price was steep, too. She wondered if she could get her parking stub validated at the restaurant. Jason had suggested the downtown Hyatt Regency. She'd never eaten there, or even heard about the restaurant before. It wasn't her sort of place.

She met Jason in the hotel atrium. Lydia had heard that such atriums were a design feature of a lot of Hyatt's. There was a large open space in the middle of the hotel, with glass elevators along one side. It was filled with light and greenery and was quite pretty, with the sound of falling water in the background.

The two of them shook hands and Jason grinned. "I'm glad you could come, Lydia. I appreciate your time."

Lydia shrugged. "I've been sitting around the house for the last couple of months. I needed something like this. Thanks, Jason."

"I have ulterior motives," he announced with a smile, and led her to the elevators.

The elevator ride was not like any she'd ever been on before in her life. Rising up inside the atrium was pretty, but then there was a flash of darkness and then they were outside, going up the side of the building. It took a conscious effort of will to maintain her composure. She'd seen the movie "The Towering Inferno" three times; she adored Fred Astaire and Steve McQueen was cute. But hanging over nothing wasn't something she was used to or comfortable with.

The restaurant was on the top of the hotel, a big circular affair. She thought the design a bit odd, but didn't comment on it. They were shown to a window table and were handed menus. Jason studied his briefly and put it down.

Lydia was shocked at the prices. Her first thought was to get a salad. Except that some of the salads were more expensive than some of the entrees.

She was still having trouble coming to grips with life as Poppa had made it. The world would not end if she had a seven-dollar steak for lunch. She vowed she'd make sure they got separate checks and then picked what she wanted.

When she put the menu down she saw Jason looking at her with interest. After a second he gestured out the window. "Nice view, isn't it?"

She nodded. You could see the city well from up as high as they were. Lydia pointed out a few landmarks that were visible and had meaning to her.

"Well, normally we Chinese are fond of long-winded introductions, full of platitudes, pleasantries and fluff before we get down to business," he told her. "I have a meeting this afternoon and there are some preparations I have to finish; you won't mind if I skip all of the Chinese stuff, will you?"

Lydia smiled and shook her head.

"Good! Let me start with two basic points. Valley Electric Supply is a sound company and although it is publicly listed, almost three-fourths is owned by the Wilson family. Most of the rest is held by the officers and employees of the corporation, such as myself." Lydia nodded in response.

"When I came to them, Valley was hurting. They had suffered from bad financial management for several years and even worse accounting. Sales were down to about thirty million dollars a year and the year before I was hired they managed to lose a million and a half dollars, which is a great deal for such a small company."

The waitress came and took their orders. Lydia wanted to laugh. Jason was having a chef's salad, while she ordered a sirloin, rare.

As soon as the waitress left, Jason continued. "About six months before I came on board, the company hired a man named Tom Leech to be the data processing manager. There was a consultant working for them at the time and three computer operators. Mr. Leech seems to have moved cautiously at first, but by the time I arrived on the scene the consultant and one of the operators were gone, at Mr. Leech's request. This impressed the owner, Mr. Jed Wilson. The man had analyzed the situation and did what had to be done."

Lydia nodded, pretending she understood.

Jason frowned. She could see she hadn't fooled him.

"The company had to cut back," he explained. "Laying off personnel is one of the ways to reduce expenses; some managers have trouble putting people on the street."

She suddenly understood that this Tom Leech had added two people to the rolls of the unemployed. There had been enough of that in the neighborhood when she was growing up. She wasn't sure she liked someone who would do that.

"Yes, yes," Jason said, reading her expression again. "But don't feel sorry for the consultant. He drives a red Corvette with a license plate frame that reads: 'Who Dies With The Most Toys Wins' and lives in a penthouse in downtown Phoenix and has a yacht in Santa Barbara.

"Anyway, my point was that Mr. Wilson found quite a lot to like about Tom Leech. And, in fact, I like him as well. He has proved to be quite a bit more responsive to requests than any other computer boffin I've worked with or heard of. Requests that I would normally expect to take months and months he does in hours; occasionally days, but usually hours." Jason shook his head ruefully.

"I don't know how you feel about others in your profession, but sometimes they come across as Mandarins that the rest of us mortals must kowtow to and obey their every whim. Tom Leech has been excellent to work with. In the year I've been with Valley and working closely with him, we have plugged the major accounting gaps and put in business controls that were sorely needed. This last year's sales were nearly forty million dollars and we showed a million and a half dollar profit. A considerable turnaround."

Lydia didn't follow the news much; school had taken too much energy, but she wasn't totally ignorant. "I thought we were supposed to be in a recession?"

"Phoenix in particular and the Southwest in general have pretty well missed the bullet. For us, business is booming. We are heavily dependent on development and new construction, which is continuing at almost record levels."

Lunch arrived, and they started to eat. Her steak was actually rare.

Jason continued. "A month or so ago, over the Fourth of July three-day weekend, I went to visit Sarah in LA. On Friday night we went to a movie in Westwood, near UCLA. To make a long story short, we were walking along the street, looking at the shop windows and had to wait for a traffic light. While I was standing at the corner talking to Sarah, a black Corvette pulled up in front of us. The man who was driving is the accounts payable clerk at Valley. Jeff King is a very large black man; he's very distinctive. He was wearing enough gold jewelry to remind me of Mr. T."

Jason ruminated for a moment, before going on. "I doubt if he saw me, there was a spectacular blonde woman in the car with him, distracting him rather competently."

Jason's eyes met hers. "At first I didn't think anything of it. It was just someone I knew that I'd seen. Then I began to wonder how a clerk at Valley could afford the car and jewelry. That was a lot of car and a lot of gold. By the time I got back to Phoenix, I had gone from curious to concerned. So I did a little checking. I think he's stealing from Valley, although I don't know how."

"Sarah said you needed a programmer. It sounds to me more like you need to call the police."

"This really pisses me off!" he said abruptly, with far more passion than Lydia had ever heard from him up until then.

"Pardon me, Lydia, I apologize."

He was angry with himself, Lydia thought, as he took a second to compose himself.

"There's no proof. Not only is there no proof that he has stolen from us, there is no proof that anything has been stolen. The police require more than a complaint that someone is driving a Corvette or wearing gold jewelry before they will investigate. You have to show them that a crime has been committed. There is no evidence of one."

He chewed on a piece of tomato for a moment, still working on regaining control of his emotions. "Valley's fiscal year ends on March 31st. Since we are publicly listed, we are subject to SEC regulations, one of which requires us to be audited annually. Our auditors are one of the Big Ten accounting firms and cost a small fortune.

"After our year-end the auditors spent nearly a month fine-combing our accounts. It is their job to spot things like this. They gave Valley a clean bill of health. Yet, I stayed late one night to check the personnel files, plus I ran a credit check on King, too. King moved into a condo in early April, he seems to have paid almost half down. He bought the car in May. Cash. Something is wrong."

"He might be dealing drugs, not stealing," Lydia suggested. "Have you asked this Tom Leech to look into it for you?"

Jason looked embarrassed. "Everything at Valley is run by the computer. Tom Leech has improved things quite a bit; we're even keeping correspondence on the machine now. There is no chance that the money for a condo or a 'Vette came from petty cash. The checks would have come through the computer. Had to have come through the computer!" Jason sighed.

"Auditors never give a final report without making comments about how to improve security. This year, they complained about our check handling procedures. So, now Tom Leech prints the check edit, gives it to King to proof, who then gives it to Mr. Wilson for final approval. Then Tom prints the checks. Personally. Then he hands the checks to King to match up with the paperwork, before the checks go to Mr. Wilson for his signature. After the checks are signed they go back to King to be mailed out."

Jason munched some more tomato. "On the surface the system looks solid, but something is rotten in Denmark, I'm sure of it. As for drugs, King is there at seven every morning. He stays, most days, until past six. He's salaried, so there's no overtime. Would a drug dealer work ten to fifteen hours a week of overtime if he didn't have to and wasn't getting paid for it?

"I don't think Tom Leech is involved, but I don't know for sure. He lives with his wife and three kids in a small house in north Phoenix, and shows no signs of unearned income. But I just don't know. He's a million times smarter than King."

Jason paused and looked hard at her. "Lydia, I don't legally know anything. I've talked to Sarah about this, now you. I haven't talked to anyone else, not even Mr. Wilson. It's just a suspicion; there's no real evidence. I spent a couple of late nights going over the payables. I couldn't see anything wrong, everything appears to be in order. Except I'm as sure as I can be that this fellow is stealing from us. I can't be sure if he has confederates and so I'm being cautious."

Lydia finished chewing a piece of her steak. "I don't know hardly anything about the subjects you're talking about," she told him. "Although I know something about condos, houses and cars after some recent research I've undertaken in those subject areas recently."

Jason laughed at that.

"A Corvette, at least according to my brother Rodrigo, goes for something upwards of $25,000. A condo, well, a cheap one, you're looking in the upper thirties, to perhaps fifty thousand. Even if he just made down payments, you're looking at twenty or thirty thousand dollars. Are you telling me you could be missing that much money and not know it?"

He nodded, glumly. "You have to understand that we have about six million dollars worth of inventory currently and two million in receivables. Stock in hand, ready to sell; money owed to us. As I said, I ran a credit check on King; he owns the car free and clear and paid half down on the condo. He must have paid in cash. My guess is that we're missing upwards of $80,000 and probably more. Perhaps two percent of the total value of the inventory, if it's that, five or six percent of the receivables if he's found a way to fiddle those.

"Without carefully checking all of our stock, all of our accounts, there's no way to know for sure how much is missing. I know it sounds like we'd know if so much was missing, but in truth the bigger you get, the larger the amount of money you can be missing and not know it.

"Which is why I thought of you. Sarah has always told me about how smart you are, about how much you like to solve tough problems."

Jason looked her straight in the eye. "I can't trust anyone at Valley, not because I necessarily think they're involved, but because I don't know if they are. We're a good small company, but something like this could bring us down.

"If you were to come to work for us for a couple of weeks as a programmer, perhaps you could spot something I've missed. I've looked, but..." Jason wagged a finger. "With your expert knowledge, I'm sure you'll spot how it's being done. Then we can arrest whoever is responsible and that will be that. All you personally have to do is work with the computer until you find out if there is stealing going on and how it's being done. You won't be Sam Spade or Secret Agent 007, just a computer consultant, working under cover."

Lydia sat thinking for several minutes while they continued to eat. She looked out the window and, after a few seconds, she laughed. Jason looked at her quizzically.

"I like it! The restaurant must rotate?" The view out the window had changed from when they'd sat down. She watched carefully -- you could see the world move around you if you watched closely and were patient.

"At first I wanted to surprise you and I was disappointed when you didn't notice. We've gone around one and a half times. I decided you weren't going to spot it."

"I'm not sure if I would make a very good 'consultant' if I don't notice the scenery changing right in front of me."

"Well, I'd like to think you were hanging on my every word," he replied drolly.

Lydia wondered how Jason and Sarah were going to get along. Sarah was intelligent, but she had only a rudimentary sense of humor. Jason's was much better developed.

She got up and looked to see how it was done. Except for an obvious band on the floor, there was no sign inside the restaurant. The rotation did explain some of the very odd design of the kitchen and service areas, though.

She sat back down and saw that Jason was studying her gravely. "Are you interested?" he asked hesitantly. No fool he -- Jason recognized procrastination when he saw it.

"I'm not sure what I can do to help you," she replied, trying to be honest. "I don't know what kind of computer you have, but odds are it's an IBM." He nodded and she went on. "I have only very limited experience with those. At school I mainly worked on DEC machines. I may have been introduced to some areas of investment strategy that I would never have dreamed I would learn about, but I know almost nothing about business. You talk of payables and receivables and inventory -- I don't know anything about those."

"We have an IBM System 38. It's a middle-sized machine, programmed in a language called RPG. Tom Leech thinks it's the cat's meow. He does things quickly that I am used to having to wait weeks or months for. As for the business principles involved, I'll loan you a basic business text and a basic accounting book. There's nothing very complicated about our operation."

Lydia saw the hole in that and said so. "If it's not very complicated and everything is easy to learn, why did you spend so long studying accountancy? Why don't you know what's going on?"

His expression was a shade less friendly. "Well, we use only a small subset of some very complicated rules. As for why I can't figure it out, all I can say is that I just haven't done it yet. If I were to go over everything, item-by-item, I'd almost certainly find it. Except we print something like 2500 checks a month, and receive nearly ten times that many ourselves. I am looking. I am going to continue to look. My thought is that the problem lies with the computer system, somehow. I don't have much expertise with the actual working of computers and I wanted to get the advice of someone who does."

He reached into his inner coat pocket, and brought out a couple of sheets of folded paper and put them down in front of her. "I took the liberty of preparing a resume for you. Just say the word and I'll see a copy gets in the stack to be considered. Otherwise," he grinned wanly, "consider it a free service."

The resume was two pages long and of course, only dealt with her university course work. Lydia was surprised Jason knew so much about her; obviously he'd talked to Sarah. And she and Sarah told each other everything. Almost everything.

She thought about it for a couple of more minutes, and then sighed. "I guess so. Go ahead." She was not only aimless, but desperate. If she was willing to do something as strange as this, she just had to be desperate. But it certainly was different. And, in its own way, it did sound interesting.

So she agreed. What the heck, right? Jason grinned broadly, dug into his briefcase and handed her the two books he'd promised. "You're assuming an awful lot!" she told him with a laugh.

"It pays to be prepared," was his reply. "I'll set everything up. Remember, you don't know me from Adam, right?"

Lydia nodded.

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