Copyright© 2015 by Gordon Johnson
The US Army's Criminal Investigation Department was visited by a couple of sharp-suited gentlemen with official ID cards stating them as FBI agents. The Department staff, already prepared for any enquiries, let them in.
"What can we do for the FBI, gentleman?"
"We are looking for a Ruth Proctor. She appears to work for your department, though other records claim she was discharged from the army some time ago."
The front man knew his task well. "Who did you say? Ruth somebody?"
"Miss Ruth Proctor. Is she on your staff?"
"Doesn't ring a bell, sir. Let me check our records." He went to a computer and looked up a file headed "Personnel." After a couple of minutes, having checked and double-checked, he reported back to them, "Sorry, gentlemen, There is no Ruth Proctor listed."
The FBI men knew their jobs just as thoroughly.
"You say she is not listed. Does that mean that the woman is not on your staff, or is listed under another name, or is no longer on your staff, or simply removed from your listing?"
The other spread his hands. "Gentlemen, that is a whole series of questions. You cannot expect a definite answer to all of them at once. I only have access to our staff database. I can say no more."
"Listen, mister. That is not good enough. This is an official investigation, and we will get to the bottom of this. If we come back with a photo of her, will you be able to see if you can identify her then?"
"That would be the case, sir. We have image recognition software, so we should be able to match your photograph to any member of staff, should such a person be in our employ at this time. Can I ask why you are investigating this supposed employee of ours?"
"No, you can't. We cannot release such information to you or anyone else."
"Really? Your department has the power to NOT reveal information, has it? Perhaps other departments of government have a similar power available to them?"
"Are you admitting that you are hiding information from us?"
"Did I say any such thing? I think not. I merely posed a hypothetical response to your claim of certain powers."
"Are you going to answer our questions, or not?"
"Certainly we shall answer your questions, sir. What these answers will be is another matter entirely, probably not within my pay grade. They might all be in the negative, for all I know."
"Is there someone higher up the tree, who might be more forthcoming?"
"There is indeed someone "higher up the tree", as you put it, but whether you would get answers that were more satisfactory to you, is a moot point."
"Right. Let's try. Get me your superior officer, soldier."
"Of course, sir. Give me a moment." He pulled a phone from his pocket, and stabbed an icon. A moment later, he said into it: "Sorry to bother you sir. It is Tompkins here, at the front office. There are two gentlemen from the FBI here, asking about some lady named Ruth Proctor, who is not listed in our staff data file. They insist on speaking to an officer, though I explained that the chances of any more information was not strong. Will you come and speak with them, sir?"
A few minutes later, an immaculately-clad officer clattered down the stairs from another floor, turning a pen in his fingers, over and over; and marched over to the group of men. He halted and asked,
"Tomkins? Are these the FBI men?"
"Indeed, sir. Perhaps you can answer their questions?"
The first of the pair announced himself. "Special Agent Robert Atkins, sir. My colleague is Agent Gordon Brown. We are investigating the current whereabouts of Ruth Proctor, sir."
"Proctor. Proctor? The surname rings a bell. I am sure we had a woman named Proctor working for us for a while, in an undercover capacity. She may have changed her identity in the course of a mission, you realise?" He thought to himself for a moment more, then declared, "Ah, yes. As I recall, she was traumatised by her experiences and asked to leave. That will be why Tomkins has no record of her. She is no longer with us, and is probably living under her assumed identity; before you ask, I have no idea what that identity is. We never retain records of such undercover identities, to maintain security."
He tapped his front teeth with his no long twirling ball-point pen.
"Nope, that is the best I can do. I don't even recall her first name: we tend to stick to surnames, eh, Tompkins?"
The soldier mildly responded, "Yes, sir."
The FBI Agent refused to be put off. "Pay records, sir? Don't you have a record of her final payment, and an address?"
"Sorry, my dear fellow. Undercover agents have special dispensations; one of which is payment into a numbered bank account. We have no other records of her."
"That is pretty damn tight security? What justification do you have for that?"
"Our undercover agents are under threat from the crime bosses whose businesses or people we bust. Our men and women in dangerous positions get the maximum protection we can give them."
"Very well. Give us the bank account number."
"No, sir. We are unable to divulge that under any circumstances. It is the only protection we can still offer to staff who have put their lives on the line for their country. Anyway, knowing such undercover operatives, and their own concern for their skin, the account has probably been closed by now, so no records will exist."
The FBI lead man growled to himself, almost gnashing his teeth in frustration. He gestured to his colleague, did an about turn, and headed for the front door, his fellow Agent in tow.
The officer regarded the enlisted man with pride. "That was well done, Tompkins. An excellent job, indeed."
"Thank you, sir."
The officer returned to his office, where he sat for a while, thinking.
Finally, he came to an unavoidable conclusion, and consulted the department's phone records. Locating the one which had come from out of the blue, asking for Ruth to phone a number, he located the number that she had made a call to, and did the same himself, unsure of himself this time.
A voice answered the call.
"Hello? Can we be of assistance?"
"This is Ruth Proctor's boss. She phoned you before she left here. Is there any way to get a message to her? It is important."
"Ruth Proctor? Yes, of course. Please wait. This may take some time."
There was a long period of silence, then Ruth's voice could be heard. "Who is it?"
"Frederick, Frederick Grierson."
"Oh, it is you, sir. What has happened? I thought I had two months furlough."
"The FBI have come sniffing around, but we managed to put them off, with a tale of you having left the service some time ago, because of trauma. I said that you had dropped off our radar as you would be using a fake identity."
"That was good of you, sir."
"Unfortunately, that may not be the last we hear from them. The FBI are competent and persistent shit, my dear, so it would not be safe for you to return any time soon. They asked about bank accounts where you might have been paid your salary, and again I claimed that it would be unidentifiable, and probably closed by now.
I think the only solution is for you to remain permanently off the books. I am sorry about that, but I would fear for your life if you ever came back into any formal existence. They suggested bringing a photograph of you, you see."
"I understand, sir. Thank you for considering me that way. You know I love the job, but I cannot do anything to endanger the department. At least I have found my child, and that gives me considerable satisfaction, sir. I shall stay away and do my best to lie low."
"I can arrange a severance payment for you, my dear, but I have no idea how you could access it without giving yourself away."
A Personalia voice that he recognised from the start of the call interrupted. "We can arrange for that, Mr Grierson. Place the sum in an account in any large bank, and we shall arrange a transfer of the funds such that they get to the lady. We have noted her name has not been mentioned in the body of the call, and we shall maintain that state of affairs. We have already deleted your mention of her name at the start of the call, and replaced it with "Judy Punch". Is that satisfactory? All you need do is phone this number and state the bank account number plus the bank where it is held. We guarantee the rest."
"By God. You must be really well organised. You can guarantee that transfer in complete safety?"
"We can. We are experts in financial matters like that."
Ruth added, "Boss, you can depend on that. They mean what they say. I trust them."
"Fine. I will make that financial settlement for you. Just keep safe, Judy Punch!"
"I will, boss. Thanks for everything. You were great to work for. Bye."
The line went dead, and Frederick put his phone down. He began to realise that in The Personalia he was dealing with an organisation that had better security than he had access to, and that was saying something! He now felt that Ruth was indeed safe wherever she currently was hiding.
That afternoon, Ruth, Margo and Esme were talking about their future in the colony. Ruth explained her ideas for security-related work, if she could get it. Margo pointed out that with two young children, she was somewhat restricted in employment potential, while Esme said that as an amateur money-lender, she was not trained in anything useful. Moneylending was not an acceptable trade on Rehome.
As she said that, her dreams came true. Her phone sounded, and she answered it.
"Miz Esme Limbada?"
"This is the Bank of Rehome. We are told that you were an ethical moneylender on Earth. Does that description fit?"
"I suppose it does. I tried to provide poor folks with a better service than they were getting. It seemed to work."
"We like your ideas. Could you come for an interview for a possible position with the Bank?"
"An interview? Certainly. I am fairly free at the moment, with only a five-year-old Malan to worry about. What are you thinking about?"
"Please leave off such questions until we meet. Much will depend on your personality, presentation, and specific talents and abilities. I am the head of Personnel at the Bank, and I have been asked to speak to you. We are interested in your ideas, as well as your person, Esme.
"Could you manage to get to the Bank for 11 am tomorrow? You can? Fine. Ask for George Small, Personnel Manager."
The call concluded, Esme looked around in wonder. "What the fuck was that all about? Why are they speaking to me? I haven't sought a job yet!"
Ruth commented, "I was given suggestions for work, Esme. It was hinted to me that the Administration Department try to steer people with specific abilities to jobs that need to be filled by people with that experience. Possibly someone informed the Bank about your work record being of interest, and they took it from there. You ARE good with money, Esme, aren't you?"
"I was, in my capacity as a moneylender, but it is so different from banking, Ruth."
"Well, wait and see what they say, Esme. You can always say NO."
"There is that, I suppose. What about you, Ruth?"
"What about me?"
"Are you going to take up a job related to your expertise?"
"I am not sure. At first, I was here on a two-month leave of absence from my job, but I am now informed that my post has been terminated – for understandable reasons, of which I approve - and my residence here is likely to be to all intents permanent. I suppose I shall have to look for work, but like the rest of you ladies, I have a cash stash to see me through for a considerable time ahead."
Esme still seemed unsure. "Ruth, I never did get to hear what your job was? Care to tell us?"
"I suppose I can say now. I was an undercover agent for the US Army's criminal investigation department."
"Wow! Quite a high-powered job, then. Mind you, I shouldn't think they would have such an opening here on Rehome."
"I expect you are right, Esme."
Esme was at the bank in plenty of time for her interview. She asked for the Personnel Officer, and was taken to an interview room to wait. After a few minutes, A man entered and introduced himself as George Small.
"It is just a preliminary chat, Esme, to get to know what you are like. Let's sit down and we can talk over a cup of coffee. Someone will be along with that in a moment. I understand you were a moneylender par excellence?"
"More by accident than design, Mr Small."
"George, please, or my friends call me Dod."
"Well, Dod, after I left the Army, with a cash windfall, I decided I wanted to help families like the one I came from; a poor family, almost always in debt to moneylenders. I thought if I could offer them a way out of their debt, without seeming to offer charity, they might appreciate it."
"An admirable intention, Esme, but how did you go about that achieving that objective?"
"I set up my own moneylending business among these people, so they could see me and watch my doings. I let it be known that I would happily take over an existing loan at ten per cent less interest. You see, I had enough capital to be able to cover any losses that occurred.
"It worked well, and business soon built up as I developed a reputation for fairness. I was aware of my exposure to outside pressure, but I had my Army experience and training in unarmed combat to protect me. However, other moneylenders noticed their business dropping off, and identified me as the culprit. One day, two "heavies" appeared at my door to "suggest" that I give up the business. I took the bull by the horns and hired them instead, to be my bodyguards at an annual salary, and soon I was not bothered any more. I hired a local man to work my front office, and he fitted in, too.
"I discovered that unemployment was the main reason for non-payment, so I helped clients to get a job. Before long, I was in the business of finding jobs for more people, and businesses began to approach me for reliable staff. Most of my clients needed to hold down a job to pay off their loans, so of course they were reliable employees.
"With more people in work, others noticed my activities and starting asking for loans to start up small businesses. I made deals with them for a proportion of the business in return for start-up capital, and as these businesses got going, the whole area began to improve, and I started to think about expansion into other locations. Oh, I also put some capital into local apartment houses, for upgrades and seeking tenants from a higher socio-economic level. That worked, too.
"At this point, The Personalia contacted me, I found another ex-army girl to take over my business, and I came here to find my child."
"Fascinating!", declared George Small. "In effect, you functioned as a small development bank for the locality, didn't you?"
"I suppose you could put it that way, but it was not my intention to act as a bank, just make life easier for a bunch of folks; a pretty amateurish operation."
"Esme, no matter what you intended, the result was a banking operation, and very like the approach we take in Rehome Colony. Our Bank of Rehome is aimed at the small entrepreneur: the farmer, small shopkeeper and tradesman. Nothing as large as the Lownie Emporium, but more like what you did on Earth. I think we may be able to find a place for you in our organisation.
"I will have to speak to the top management first, but I envisage using you to visit applicants for larger amounts. Your estimation of their probity will be valuable in assessing them for such a large loan. Unlike Earth, where the bank would ask for security, here we are not allowed to foreclose on land. If we did attempt such a thing, its ownership automatically returns to the Colony Administration as the original granter. Thus we have to depend on our own assessment of the applicant.
"Your experience will enable you to tell whether an applicant is genuine, and likely to be successful in whatever the loan is for, and thus be able to pay it back. We don't have strong-arm men to threaten clients, so we have to be clever instead. You have that ability that I believe we need.
"Do you think you could take on such a task, if I can persuade my bosses that it would be a good move? It would pay well, I assure you."
Esme had no doubt about her choice. "Sounds great to me, George. Let's go for it."
Back at the apartment block, Ruth had a phone call from Diane Kempe.
"Ruth, The Personalia tell me that you have lost your job on Earth. Is that correct?"
"yes, it is. The FBI were sniffing around, and a clean break was the best solution for the department, and for me too."
"And you had CID experience with the US Army?"