"Could you send me bank statements on behalf of your foundation? We're not seeing where the money's going."
Greg took a long drag from his cigarette and let the smoke curl away from his lips. He hadn't considered that someone would look for a paper trail. He tapped his finger on the countertop, stared down at his phone, and stirred his mind for an answer. He heard an uncomfortable cough come through the speaker.
"Look-- Irma, was it?"
"No, my name's--"
"Sure. Irma, Charles Wilford Literary Foundation is a cornerstone of this community. I don't think I have to tell you how important it is for kids to have access to books at their reading level, and how great it is for parents to have control over what their kids read. You have kids?"
"I do, but--"
"You do? Great. How many times have your kids gone to the library and brought home a book you didn't want them to read?"
"They don't go to the library unattended. I know how important this foundation is to the community and to you, personally, Charlie, but the fact of the matter is, you raised $650,000 for your foundation and nobody knows where the money went."
Greg paused for a moment. It turns out there's a dollar amount where emotional pleas stop working. What a shame. Charlie Wilford had been a great identity-- a reliable, interesting socialite with a down-to-earth demeanor. Beloved by community stakeholders. Adored by young, conservative families. Desired by older, recently-divorced women. And, until last week, the strongest candidate for city treasurer. Having access to the city's coffers would have made him the wealthiest "philanthropist" this sad little town had ever seen. Now, good ol' Charlie would need to pack his bags, burn his driver's license, and take up residence in some other podunk hovel. Unless, perhaps, there was a way around this whole hiccup.
"Irma, I hear you. You need something quantifiable to show the higher-ups, and to showcase to the voters. The Foundation's impact has been much more nuanced than some emotionless numbers on a spreadsheet, but here's a quick picture: One hundred fifty-seven kids have received book bundles in the last 18 months. Three new authors have signed contracts with the Foundation to create exclusive reading material for our members. Six new donors have joined the cause--"
"Charlie, Charlie-- I'm going to have to stop you there. Can you demonstrate that the $650,000 you spent actually went to the reading program? Or hiring new authors, or advertising? With less than a quarter of this budget, your foundation has been operating at this same level for years. Where is the rest of the money going?"
"Irma, speaking of advertising, you've probably heard that the Foundation is raising funds to build a Reading Room."
"Yes, Charlie, I am aware of the plans to build a reading room. I see here that you started fundraising for this project... ten years ago. But I don't see any building permits or other related documentation..."
"Wait, Irma, did you say you don't have any building permits on record?" Greg feigned surprise. It was a long shot, and probably a stupid one, but Charlie was living a comfortable life siphoning money out of these good, gullible folks, and he wasn't about to start from scratch if he didn't have to.
"Yes, that's correct. No permits of any kind for this project."
"Oh... I think I need to sit down. Oh, I feel sick. I'm ashamed to say this-- and it certainly doesn't look good for a future city treasurer-- but I hired the builders, architects, and muralists for this project on good faith. All involved were former Foundation book recipients-- in other words, children I had come to know well and then later trust as adults with their own businesses."
"What do you mean when you say you hired them in good faith? Do you mean there wasn't a formal contract?"
Greg smiled at the sheer brilliance of this turn of events. It was Irma's words, not his! Irma suspected he had been fleeced. All he had to do was keep that fire burning without raising suspicion...
"Yes, Irma... I feel absolutely sick to my stomach even saying it, but there was no formal contract. We shook hands on it. Like I said, I knew them as kids, and I wanted to see them succeed, so when they told me they could do this job and requested cash payment, I thought I could trust them."
There was a long pause on the line. Greg placed the butt of the cigarette to his lips and held his breath. Did she buy it?
"Could you give me their names?"
Greg sighed and felt the weight on his shoulders lift. "Oh, I hate to even say them. Will they be arrested?"
"It's hard to say at this point, and I'm no expert, but there will be a formal investigation if you choose to press charges against them. Otherwise, you'll be liable for the funds missing from your foundation."
Greg eyed the gleaming Tesla in his driveway. He thought of the glorious trip to the Bahamas he had planned, only a few months away.
And then, his thoughts drifted to the idiot kids, all those years ago, who smashed the windows of his old Cadillac-- two of whom took over their father's construction business; one of whom was an aspiring graffiti artist; and one of whom was just finishing up her last year of study to become an architect. Idiots who, by and large, still had a bad reputation in this little city, even as moderately successful adults. Greg knew, from his various flirtations with wealthy divorcees in the county, that this same group of kids had run-ins with the law several times as teens for vandalization, petty theft, and shoplifting. Embezzlement would be the next logical step for these would-be criminals. The rumor mill would churn these miscreants to mulch.
Things couldn't have worked out more perfectly. He drew another velvety drag from his cigarette, and as he exhaled the smoke, imagined the headlines.
"Cutter and Connor Bricht, the young builders who scammed the Charles Wilford Literary Foundation."
"Okay. Were there others?"
"Yes. Alex Dommer, the trendy muralist, and Drina Yarly, the architect. I suspect they may not be forthright about what they've done. And without a paper trail, it would be difficult to prove their wrongdoing in a court of law. I do, however, have their names in a list of people I hired as contractors for the Foundation." That would be an easy document to forge, at least.
"Okay, thank you for sharing this information with me, Charlie. I'm so sorry to hear about what happened. Just between you and me, when I look at these names, I'm not surprised-- even if you don't have a solid case against them, I'm sure people will sympathize with you."
"Thank you, Irma. I hope so. I like to think of myself as an honest, trustworthy person, and I just expect other people to be the same way. I'm just heartbroken that they chose to do this, after all our community's done for them."
"Me, too, Charlie. I'll be in touch, but in the meantime, please feel free to call me if anything else comes up."
Greg tapped his cigarette ash onto the countertop next to his phone, trying twice to click "End Call," and then sauntered back to his kitchen window, where he surveyed his Tesla baking in the sun. "This whole thing could really go fifty-fifty," he said to himself, combing through a mental rolodex for the name of an old associate who made a pretty convincing passport.