It was around 6:00 PM when I walked into the house to the smell of dinner cooking. Nothing fancy, I suspected, but tasty — one of those 5-bone pot roasts, cooked for hours in the slow-cooker with potatoes, onions and carrots. Wouldn't be surprised if Audrey had picked up one of those salads from the store with all of the fixings including pieces of cheese, corn, taco pieces — the little add-ons that make a salad unique — as well as the dressing.
Not that labor intensive cooking was normal around our house during the week. Both Audrey and I worked, and not having kids yet, there was no reason that we had to be home early from work. We'd been talking about changing that recently, as Audrey's biological clock was, as they say, ticking.
Yeah, those 5-bone roasts weren't the finest cut of meat, but they're flavorful.
When I walked into the dining room, Audrey came over and smiled and kissed me.
I suspect that I didn't look too happy at that moment.
"Hey Jim, what's wrong? You look kind of upset," she asked.
"I am," I replied, "I could really use some of your advice."
Audrey looked at me and nodded. It wasn't that unusual for me to ask her for her wisdom. She was one of those really bright people who ate school up; before we were married, she had completed a combined MBA/JD degree that they offered at the university. That's right — she had both a law degree and an MBA with an emphasis in accounting.
Out of school, Audrey had gone to work for one of the larger regional CPA firms, and after passing her exams and spending her two years doing audit, was a CPA as well. Audrey Masters, CPA, JD, her cards read. She was working in business law, where her accounting credentials added a bunch to her salary.
"Let's eat first, and then after dinner, you can run your problem by me, and I'll put my two-cents in!" she laughed as she spoke and we headed towards the dining room.
We had a pleasant dinner, telling each other about what had gone on during our day, chatting about the news, a few tidbits about friends, and the normal sort of discussion that we had around the table every evening. The roast was falling off the bone, and I was certainly satiated when we pushed our chairs back from the table, and did the clean up after dinner.
Living in the warm and humid environment of Florida meant that we had bug issues — everything from fire ants, to huge cockroaches — so Audrey and I were meticulous about cleaning off our plates and utensils, and putting them into the dishwasher right after we ate.
Audrey grabbed a diet soda, walked into the living room, and sat in the brown leather sofa where she could tuck her feet up under her, and sit kind of sideways with a couple of pillows to keep her comfortable. I had actually stopped in my office briefly to grab a yellow notepad, before following her into the room. I took the upholstered chair opposite the couch so we were facing each other. Had we not been talking about business I would have shared the couch with her, and some personal contact sport might have followed.
"OK," Audrey started, "tell me what's bothering you."
I looked at my wife, her dark, wavy hair and green eyes twinkling as they always did when she knew that she would be presented with a difficult problem. Her light complexion always accentuated her lips, and somehow in the light there in the living room, they always looked fuller and redder. Her smile could light up any room for me. It was hard to imagine that we'd been married almost seven years already.
"Honey, its concerns George," I started, and I could see Audrey's slight grimace as soon as I said his name. George Green was my partner in our citrus business, "Finest Kind Citrus Company" — an inside joke on the phrase used in the original MASH movie.
I was pretty much expecting Audrey's response, because I knew that she had never really cared for George, but he and I had been partners in the business predating my marriage to Audrey. It was a good partnership, with George running the sales and marketing as well as the packing house operations, and I ran the groves (including getting the crop picked and to the packing house), and the finances for our operation.
Not to brag — I did mention that Audrey was smart, but I had an undergraduate degree in Ag from Gainesville, and had an MBA in Finance as well, so I could hold my own.
"I've run across evidence that George is doing some unreported deals on the side, shipping off product and getting paid under the table. What do you think I should do about it?" I asked.
"How long has it been going on?" she asked.
"Since the beginning of the season — maybe three months," I replied, "but I'm not entirely sure. Maybe it started earlier and I just didn't hear about it."
"How many customers do you think he's making these side deals with?"
"I think only one. But at this point who knows. Maybe this isn't even the first time. But I'm hard pressed to believe that, because you can't keep something like this secret, at least for long. Someone talks to someone, someone sees something that doesn't look kosher; you know. Word gets around," I concluded. Audrey was nodding sagely in agreement with me as I spoke.
"I don't think George understands all of that new technology that we've been using, either. My suspicion is that he does his deals when I'm out of town for the day — like last week when I had to go to Miami for that Ag Department update on citrus canker, or he does a run when he thinks that it's too late at night to expect me to swing by the packing house. I don't think that he grasps that each load of the fruit is tracked with GPS units and computer ID chips that have to tie to our shipments. If he doesn't enter a load into the computer system manually it doesn't mean that it goes unnoticed. It leaves a big gap in the sequence that an audit will pick up.
"Plus, he clearly doesn't have a clue how the minicams that we installed last year to prevent thefts from the packing house work either. He is of the impression that once the security company removes the old tape and puts a new one in, that after a day or two, it is destroyed. But they're not; they are filed for a year in case we need to go back over them.
Audrey continued to think quietly about what I was telling her.
"So how did you catch on to what he was doing?" she asked, wanting clarification.
"A combination of things, really. First, one of the women at the packing plant said something about suddenly having to work late all the time to her brother, who works on the grove. Then he mentioned it to me, because it sounded a little odd to him, and he knows that this business is rife with theft. Once I started looking, it wasn't hard to use the GPS data, and the minicams to confirm what was happening. Plus, as if that wasn't enough, I started asking around, and it turned out that there were a lot of folks who had heard rumors to the effect that George was stabbing me in the back. None of them had proof in hand, but the grapevine was correct.
"In fact, honey, I'm really appalled to say this, but he hasn't just done this with other folk's crops that we were brokering; he's pulled his little stunt with fruit from the family grove!" What we called the 'family grove' was the section of mixed citrus that I'd inherited from my father when he passed, a couple of years before I met Audrey. Selling fruit from my family grove would mean that he wasn't just taking the 10% brokerage fee; he'd be pocketing the entire price for the fruit — which was stealing directly from me.
"So now the big question: what do I do about it?" I said as I sat back, and got my yellow-pad ready to take notes as my wife gave me her thoughts, in her stream-of-consciousness style.
"First," she began, "the partnership is over. You can't go on with doing business with someone who you can't trust, who has tried to pull a fast one on you already. You can't ignore what he's done, so the status quo isn't an alternative, but once you confront him with the fact that you know how and what he's doing you can't just let it go. If you do he'll just avoid repeating his mistakes that let you catch him and conceal it better the next time.
"Second, luckily, you run the company finances, so you should pay off all of the bills, and take out all of the money that you are entitled to from the accounts. That includes the draw you should be getting, and compensation for the fruit that he stole from you. And you need to cut off the credit cards, ASAP."
George was a gambler, and once several years ago he had used one of the company credit cards to take a cash advance when he'd run short at a casino in the Bahamas. He had repaid the money, and I'd asked him not to do it again. But Audrey remembered, and could never quite bring herself to trust that he might not do it again in the future, and run up a big gambling debt on the company card — in effect leaving me with his gambling debt.
I started writing down on my pad:
"Pay off outstanding bills;
Withdraw cash that I'm entitled to;
Close credit card accounts — ASAP"
Audrey's list was getting longer, and started including all of the little legal niceties that I would need to do to split the partnership. Actually I had no intention of doing those things myself; I would leave that to the lawyer.
It was about an hour later when Audrey was finished with her strategy for ending the partnership. It had involved both what needed to be done, and also the timing, in order that I not tip my hand too early and have George grabbing assets to which he was not entitled. Unfortunately, despite what the courts say, possession is frequently the greater part of the law.
We both sat there, silent for a moment, before I started to speak.
"Audrey, are you sure that breaking up the partnership is the only solution? I mean, George and I have had a successful working relationship for longer than you and I have been married. As far as I can tell, until a couple of months ago, he never did anything like this," I queried, my voice low and getting emotional over the idea of having to destroy the partnership.
"Jim Masters, you are just too soft. This is one of those situations when you will be better off if you just deal with it, get it over, put it behind you, and get back to living your life. You can hire other salesmen, and get other people to run a packing house for you. You still have your grove, and I'll bet that most of the farmers whose fruit you've been brokering will go with you and not George," she exclaimed.
"For one thing, you know George, and he has never saved a dime in his life. What he earns he spends. I suspect that without you, he would have a hard time qualifying for his bonds or insurance. And without those he can't even sell anyone else's fruit!" she told me with a surprisingly hard look in her eye.
I looked at her.