Bruce, although employees addressed him as Mr. McClurry, strutted in front of me until we reached a black Tesla. Expertise knowledge of the makes and models of cars eluded me, yet several aspects of Teslas were well-known even to me. The most significant detail being that I could never afford one. The fact that the key had a button on it that could make it back up by itself was moot due to the first fact.
I tried to place my hand on the door handle and found only a flat surface. Not knowing how to get into Bruce’s car was an undeniable lousy way to start our outing. Still, it got worse. When I looked up, Bruce studied me as if I was a puppy barking in the mirror at itself. The look said ‘what the heck’ but lacked the loving adoration part.
“You’re following me. Remember, I told you that you might not come back to the office.”
“Oh.” I looked back at the door for some answer it didn’t hold and then faced him again. “I’m actually parked out back.”
He rolled his eyes. It was undeniable.
He must have hit a button on that mysterious key thing because both doors began to swing upward. How had I not noticed this car parked in front of our office before?
I slid into the sleek black vehicle that transported me to another dimension. Only a few lucky souls inhabited this parallel world that sped by the minivans smelling of yesterday’s french fries. A full computer screen took up the dashboard. I wasn’t worthy of such luxuries, and my boss’s lack of eye contact made it apparent that he agreed.
Without a word, he swung around back to the parking lot.
I pointed to my red Camry, viewing it with humbled eyes. He stopped in front of it and allowed me time to get in and start my engine. If I dreamed of Bruce that night, he would most certainly be wearing black, except in an ominous way.
Bruce kept his speed slow at first, maybe testing my abilities to follow. As we approached the Buckman Bridge, he took off, exceeding the speed limit by twenty-one miles per hour. Why did I care? First, I have avoided ever receiving a speeding ticket. Second, I am well aware of the fact that anything over twenty miles per hour above the speed limit is considered reckless driving. I have never been an irresponsible person and had no desire to begin being one at that moment. Despite my apprehension, what choice did I have?
I pushed my foot down on the accelerator and began to see several cars disappear behind me. I also saw many keeping right up with me. There were a great many more reckless people in the world than I imagined. Bruce slowed down as we approached the first exit, and I followed him as he turned left onto US 17. It felt like forever before he turned into a small yet appealing Italian restaurant. I stepped out of my car and saw him approaching me.
“The man you’re meeting, he’s, how should I put it, a private man. He’s going to want to know information about you before he lets you handle his account.”
“Not much to know. I …”
“Be truthful and professional. Let him know you understand the ins and outs and that you are all about taking care of your clients. And for God’s sake, don’t ramble on. Understand?”
Did I sense fear in Bruce’s voice? I suddenly began to sweat.
We stepped into the restaurant and found only a few tables occupied. In the back corner sat a solitary man hidden in the shadows. He stood as we approached, and the ceiling seemed to shrink to meet him as he blocked the light behind him. I was happy when my eyes adjusted, and a face took form in the shadows.
“Henry, this is Skylar. Skylar, Henry Davis.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Davis.”
We shook hands, both of us eyeing each other up. Henry’s tailor-made suit hugged his six-foot-tall, broad physique, and he towered over my five-foot-three frame. One could find him attractive if he didn’t also seem so intimidating.
I had the impression that he was a man who liked extravagant things, and I wasn’t sure he saw me as fitting in that category. He gestured for us to have a seat. Both men ordered a bourbon, and in a fashion quite unlike myself during work, I ordered a cabernet. I glanced at Bruce for approval and saw his hand ever so slightly show me one finger signaling to me that one was my limit.
“So, Skylar, how long have you worked with Bruce?” Henry began.
Bruce shifted in his seat and searched the restaurant for the waitress. He was in obvious need of his drink. Bruce’s actions were making me uncomfortable, so I redirected my attention to Henry.
“I’ve worked with Mr. McClurry for about thirteen years.”
“He must think highly of you to let you work on such an important account.”
I glanced at Bruce, and his eyes again searched, in a panic, for the waitress. I almost felt bad for him. He had reached a point in his life where he must have realized not one person in the office would consider him a friend. When I first started working with him, he was a different person. Every morning, he would walk in the office and greet us as, at the very least, colleagues. Slowly, many of the original people moved on to other jobs, other towns, other lives. Bruce drifted into his office, becoming a hermit in his private world. Most of the employees never knew the old Bruce. It had been a long time since I had thought about the man he once was. Yet, after all the years of tolerating his distant personality, an image emerged from the recesses of my mind. I still remembered the Bruce that once existed. Suddenly, a small amount of pity crept in for the squirming middle-aged man who sat next to me.
“Well, I would like to think I have earned his respect through the years.”
“What do you think it is about you that earned his respect more than the other employees? What made him choose you for this account?”
Why was I being interviewed? A nervous flush ran from my face, down my neck, and onward to my chest.
“I’m loyal and dependable. There are only a few of us originals left in the office. Well, I guess I’m not an actual original since Mr. McClurry began his business several years before I started working there, but close enough.” I was rambling. “I stay until I complete my work. I’m accurate. I’ve never had complaints. I know the tax business as well or better than anyone in the office. Except for Bruce, of course.” I gave a weak smile to my boss, and he returned it awkwardly.
The waitress approached with our drinks and took our food order. I ordered lasagna because I had never mastered the spaghetti twirl to perfection. Biting the pasta off the fork and allowing the other half to drop into my bowl seemed inappropriate in this situation. I took a large swig of my wine. The warmth traveled to my stomach. I prayed it would do its job, enter my bloodstream, and make numb the awkwardness of the situation.
Henry had his hands folded, elbows on the table, his fists held his chin up so that his eyes could study me. Something was off. This conversation felt far from my world of credits and debits, black and white. Part of me screamed run, at the same time, another part was too scared and in a weird way concerned for Bruce if I did.
“What I need from an accountant is someone who knows the rules and can find every possible way the government has, let’s say, overlooked for us to hold on to our money.”
He threw it out there as if it were that menacingly violent dodgeball from elementary school. Then he watched to see if I was a ducker, a victim, or one of the few that threw themselves in front of it, attempting to catch it before it bounced off their forehead. How many times had I proven to myself that I was a ducker and proud of it? I could avoid hazards easily. Nevertheless, my moment of being one of the last girls standing, confidence high, would generally end with me taking a ball to the back. I would turn to see some evil boy laughing at me while I contemplated how many years it would be before he would be serving time somewhere.
“Understandable, that’s what we all want.” That was my duck. I allowed myself to stay alive, knowing I would never actually jump for the ball.
“Yes, Ms. Skylar, it is, isn’t it?” He paused and studied me as I tried not to squirm in my seat. “It appears that I have neglected to include a few accounts. What I need is for you to file the appropriate forms to put me in good standing before a possible audit.” He paused to adjust his napkin on his lap before looking at me again. “Your work appeared efficient on my hotel account.”
So, he was the wealthy hotel owner in charge of the fleabag motel Bruce had me work on out of the blue. I had thought nothing much of it at the time.
“I wanted to see your work before taking what Bruce says about you as truth. You seem competent enough.”
“Well, I’ve been doing this for many years. I can handle large accounts.”
Henry took a small sip of his drink and examined me once more before leaning back in his seat a bit. “Some people are better at finding legal ways to save the taxpayer money than others. Almost loopholes, wouldn’t you say?”
“Agreed.” Agreed? The word floated from my mouth, even though I had no clue where it came from. Did I agree to loopholes? A loophole didn’t quite fit into a black and white world. It was undeniably a gray word, yet I said it.
I took a deep breath, knowing that forms controlled my world, forms that asked questions, and I gave answers—correct answers. There was not a loophole section, so I needn’t worry. I was merely filling out multiple FBARs.
As for the experience with them that Bruce alluded to, I was unaware of any. Unless he was considering the fact that I had sat in meetings with my coworkers, the very coworkers that I thought ignorant of the topic as well. Listening to the recent current events about FBARs did not qualify as experience. One thing I did recall was if the IRS had not contacted Henry yet, all he had to do was file the FBARS, pay his fees, and he would remain in good standing. Possibly, he was merely paranoid. Or perhaps, he had watched one too many movies about offshore accounts.
I became brave enough to clarify. “So, I’m assuming several offshore accounts will need filing?” The pressure of Bruce’s foot weighed down on mine.
“You are assuming correctly,” Henry said with a smirk.
“There has been a bit of an IRS crackdown on accounts that, how did you put it, people somehow ‘neglected to include in their tax returns.’ I also believe we can avoid penalties if you deal with everything before they force you to take action.” Again, Bruce applied pressure on my foot. So much for sounding professional and knowledgeable. I took a sip of wine and decided that listening would be the best approach to choose from then on.
The waitress delivered our meals, which I politely picked at throughout the conversation. There were several uncomfortable moments of silence before Henry spoke again. He took a rather large bite of his chicken parmesan. He seemed to savor each mouthful as though he had hunted it down and prepared it himself; chewing each morsel slowly and deliberately.
When he finished swallowing and washing it down, he continued. “Do you think our friend here chose you because you’re the best at finding them?” Henry asked while swiveling his bourbon around the oversized ice cube.
“I suppose, that must be why.” I glanced at Bruce again and found him staring into his glass.
“Do you think that I could count on you to find the loopholes?” Henry asked.
“Of course,” I stammered. The forms would save me; I chanted this phrase in my head instead of letting him know there was a difference between loopholes and breaking the law.
“I’m trusting Bruce when I say I will allow you to work on my account, and I know Bruce wants to make his clients happy. After lunch, I’ll take you to my home office, where you can get started.”
“Thank you for your confidence.” Again, I tried to make eye contact with Bruce, but he held his glass with both hands, staying focused on only it. Even though I had very little respect for Bruce, I never thought he would endanger me. Was I wrong?
Bruce took care of the bill. While walking to the cars, he managed to say, “Thank you, Skylar.” Then he slid into his Tesla, a car that should have been unaffordable on his accountant budget.
I followed Henry’s car until we reached the homes along the marshy banks of the Intracoastal waterway, the ones I had often dreamed of touring. What was that saying about being careful of what you wish for? One of the four garage doors opened, and his car drifted into the dark cave. I parked to the side, got out, and waited. Should I have texted Adam and told him my whereabouts in case I went missing? Maybe, but I didn’t.
Henry’s house was incredible. The expansive rooms, towering columns, and the two-storied windows overlooking the water took my breath away. I could see a boathouse with an upstairs deck. If he didn’t have plans of killing me and throwing my body into the waterway, was it possible we could be friends?
“This way, Skylar.”
I followed, taking in the artwork and the decorations, none of which looked like they belonged in my house. There were paintings so large they wouldn’t fit on my walls. He led me to his office, which had large windows overlooking the water. There was a prestigious-looking desk in the center of the room and a smaller one to the side. He headed toward it. There were many files stacked in perfect piles along with a small lamp and an assortment of office supplies.
“I have an appointment in a couple of hours. Why don’t you take this time to get acclimated? Oh, and I apologize, you’ll need to leave your cell phone with me. I don’t like cameras around personal documents. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course.” I scrambled to find my phone in a purse that somehow hid everything.
“I’ll leave you to get started. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Thank you. I will.”
Soon after opening the folders, it became evident that I would be in the middle of an accountant’s nightmare. Who needed that many offshore accounts? Throughout my many years of accounting, I had filed a few returns that appeared to be legitimate offshore accounts. Looking at Henry’s, the number of them screamed trouble. Even though the number of files Henry put in front of me seemed overwhelming, I had a strong feeling that there was more to come.
They were allowing me to dip my toes into their frigid water to see if I was brave enough to dive in. The problem with intimidating situations is that the minute you find yourself in one, you’re already intimidated. This fact worsens already clouded judgment. Sure, I could walk out of the room and say, “Excuse me, Henry, but I have a feeling that you are a criminal. Due to this fact, I have decided not to work for you. Have a great day, and, by the way, I love your home.”
To be sure, another more subtle route would work better for my survival and the security of my job. I spent the next hour engrossed with numbers that would likely bore the average person. There was nothing outright wrong in what he allowed me to view this time, although I held out a naive hope that I would wake me from stupor I was in from countless hours of tax forms. One glass of wine at lunch was like someone slipping me a roofie, or at least it’s what I imagined I would feel had someone done such a thing. My head began to bob dramatically, so I poured myself a glass of ice water from the pitcher provided and carried it over to the window. Henry slinked in the door without a sound; his presence, when I noticed him, startled me.
“So, Skylar, does it look like an account you can handle?” Henry stood with his hands in his pants pockets, somehow making him appear less frightening.
“Oh, yes, no problem.” I hoped that he would not perceive my break as poor work ethic. “I’ve worked with offshore accounts in the past, although you have a few more than my other clients.”
“You sound like a woman who doesn’t have one herself.” He began walking toward me, taking only a few steps, but his innocent persona began to fade with each one.
“Oh no, I have no need, really. Not that I don’t have a savings account, it’s simply not so large that I need to consider spreading it to foreign countries.” I ambled over to the pitcher and refilled my glass, watching as a cucumber slid in with the ice cubes. I couldn’t help but mentally compliment him for the nice touch.
“Now that is where you and so many others see offshore accounts incorrectly. It’s not the amount of money you have; it’s investing the amount of money you have wisely.” Henry poured himself a glass as well and stood towering over me with his cucumber water in hand.
“Is that so? Am I to assume that Wells Fargo doesn’t cut it for you then?” I let out a small laugh in case he didn’t give my joke its due, which he did not.
” I’m a firm believer in supporting our country; however, what happens if our dollar crashes? All your money is invested in the U.S. market. Which means that little bit of money you have worked so hard to save suddenly became a whole lot smaller.”
“Well, I didn’t say it was a little bit.” I set my glass down and took a step away.
“We have an election coming up which could shake our economy. Are you doing your country a service if you crash and burn with it and have nothing left to help build it back up when it’s down?”
“I didn’t think of it like that.”
“Most people don’t, Skylar. They’re scared of offshore banking. They don’t realize that our country promotes offshore investments when they are on the receiving end of them. Did you know that when we’re paying capital gains taxes, foreigners aren’t paying a dime? That’s because the government wants the foreigners’ money the same as other countries do, so they give incentives to invest in their markets. Of course, countries such as ours are making it harder and harder to invest offshore by supporting the OECD and WTO.”
I took a drink, trying to bury my ‘what the heck is he talking about’ expression behind the glass. I failed in my attempt.
“The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is the OECD and the World Trade Organization is WTO. They’re the organizations that try to prevent unfair advantages that even our country offers.” He paused, I assumed, to check himself even though he had been speaking with an eerie calmness. “I’m sorry, Skylar, I didn’t mean to go on about it. To put it in layman’s terms, picture yourself playing an innocent game of blackjack at a casino where you can’t seem to do anything except win. Then, out of nowhere, men in black suits swarm you like vultures. Do you know why Skyler? They’re afraid of your success,” he paused again, studying my face before continuing. “When we get through this situation, I could help you find some promising places to invest your money where the vultures aren’t circling.”
“Tempting,” I said, knowing full well it was not, “but for now, I’ll focus on what’s in front of me.”
“It’s been nice meeting you, Skylar. I’ll touch base with Bruce to let you know when I can get you back out here.”
“Would you mind showing yourself to the door? I have a few things to take care of before my next meeting. Oh, and here’s your phone. Thanks for accommodating me.”
“No problem. Thank you again for trusting me with your account.”
“I have a good feeling you won’t let me down. Till next time.”
I tried to take in everything before me as I strode through his palace. When I was almost to the door, I noticed a tiny camera following my every move. Suddenly, I was quite sure that Henry had never actually left me alone in his office.