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Crime Fiction Friendship

I’ve always considered myself a loyal friend. I’m as dependable as they come; if someone I care about needs me, I am there for them. I’m also good at keeping my friends’ secrets and never gossip to one friend about another. Unfortunately, in the past few months, my loyalty to Lani came back to ruin me. If I’d only said something to her when I suspected she was double- dipping and creating false receipts to Bloom Cosmetics, I wouldn’t be facing a fine of $10,000.00, possible jail time, astronomical lawyer fees, and the loss of my esteemed job at Bloom Cosmetics and my dear friend Lani Edwards.

Lani and I met three years ago when I became the new Corporate Communications Director at Bloom Cosmetics, an anti-aging skin-care company that focuses on bringing cruelty-free, affordable, luxury makeup to all women. Lani had been the Marketing Director for two years when I came on board. She taught me about Bloom Cosmetics’ philosophy, products, and target marketing. For the past four years, not only have we worked together on brand marketing and management, PR and communications, and digital marketing and social media, we also became close friends.

Lani is 32, divorced for a year, and I’m 28 in a serious long-distance relationship, so we often had time to hang out together after work.  Whether we went to a Zumba, yoga, or Spin class at our health club or shared a meal or a bottle of Champagne together, we always enjoyed each other’s company. Our friendship continued to grow as we confided in each other and gave each other a shoulder to cry on or the ease to laugh until tears streamed from our eyes.

Lani made an excellent salary, my estimation was probably more than my $126,000.00 a year, so seven months ago when she started replacing some of her Calvin Klein and Ann Taylor designer work wear for Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, and Balmain, I figured she was just stepping up her game because she could. I was also delighted when she had invited me to vacation with her in St. Johns two months ago and insisted on paying my airfare and lodging. “Jayden, your airfare is being paid for with my frequent flyer points, and I’m paying for a hotel room anyway. What’s the difference if you sleep in the other queen bed.” How could I argue with that logic?

It wasn’t until a month ago when she purchased a $600,000.00 second home in St. John’s, only a 15-minute bike ride from the beach, that I became suspicious. She bragged that she had paid cash for the home. With her salary, I had figured she would have been able to afford the home, but a cash payment? She’d also have to pay airfare to get there. For the past seven months, she behaved as if she had an endless flow of money. I knew she only had a moderate divorce settlement the previous year, and with that came expensive lawyer fees. She also continued to live in the townhouse she had shared with her ex-husband in Ardmore, an affluent area on the Philadelphia Mainline, which wasn’t cheap to maintain. Despite her generous salary, she wasn’t made of money, but that had been the way she acted.

More than once, we had “working lunches” at Starlight Café, a quaint little restaurant in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. When the check came, Lani always insisted on paying the entire bill. “This is a business lunch, so I’ll use my company Master Card.” I was a bit uncomfortable the first couple of times she made that suggestion, but she always insisted.  When she had paid the bill with the credit card, but asked for a cash receipt every time, I was a bit wary. When I asked Lani why she needed a cash receipt if she already paid with the company credit card, she said, “I’ll have to teach you a thing or two about expense accounts, “but she never did. After that, I reasoned that Lani couldn’t have risen so far in the ranks of Bloom Cosmetics by being dishonest. Besides, why would she risk her job for $40.00 or $45.00 reimbursements, so I let it go.

Lani had always had an open-door policy, but in the past year, I could count the number of times her door was open on one hand.  Not too long ago, when I walked through the doorway to her office, she hurried back to her desk. I think she had attempted to turn off a program on her computer called “Receipt Maker” when I had knocked, but it hadn’t gone off. A few minutes later, when I peeked at her monitor, it had been turned off. “What are you working on?” I asked noticing a pile of receipts and reimbursement forms on the corner of her desk that she immediately shoved into a drawer.

She ran her fingers through her long red hair and barely looked at me. Her usual dazzling smile was also absent. “I’m just reconciling my expense account. Not my favorite task, for sure. What’s up?”

“I have a question about something on the Marketing Analysis report, but I can return later since you’re busy.”

“If you don’t mind, Jayden, could you come back in an hour? Then, I can give you my undivided attention.

Before I returned to her office, I had googled “Receipt Maker” and had discovered it was a program for creating fake receipts. When I returned to her office, I was prepared to ask her about the Receipt Maker program she’d had on her desktop an hour earlier but decided against it. Who was I to judge Lani? She was my friend, and I had always admired her strong work ethic. She was always punctual for her meetings, gave praise to others on her team when it was due, admitted her mistakes, and was always willing to work hard to accomplish a task, even if it meant working through lunch or leaving the at 9:00 pm. I figured if she mentioned the receipt program, I’d ask her about it. Otherwise, I’d leave it alone.

Three days before Lani got caught for embezzlement, I discovered some other incriminating evidence. I was sitting in her office while we discussed our latest digital marketing plan. When she excused herself to use the ladies’ room, I did some prying. Stuffed in the top drawer of her desk, as if she were hiding the evidence quickly, I saw a reimbursement form she’d been filling out to seek payment for $7,343 incurred to cancel a vacation due to a business meeting. She had never mentioned having to cancel a vacation because of a meeting conflict to me. I think I would have remembered that. Since I had been the one snooping, though, I couldn’t ask her about it when she came back into the office. Once again, I let it go.

You can imagine my shock when she was led out of her office in handcuffs a few days later. I’d had my suspicions that she had been up to some things that were untoward but didn’t think they would turn out to be handcuff worthy. She was accused of being reimbursed for expenses or purchases that never really happened by backing them up with fake receipts. Also, she allegedly submitted receipts from personal expenses as reimbursements and occasionally double-dipped. Evidently, this behavior had been occurring for two years which enabled Lani to embezzle $500,000 from Bloom Cosmetics.

The day after Lani was arrested, I went to visit her in jail. I had to understand why she committed fraud. The tall, striking redhead looked shrunken in her cell. Her usually bright green eyes had purplish circles under them, and her flawless complexion was dull. As angry and disappointed I was in my friend, my heart still went out to her. “Lani, honey, what were you thinking?”

Tears welled up in her eyes. “It started with charging Bloom with a non-business dinner I had with a friend. I thought ‘just this once, never again’. But then I got away with it, so I did it another time with one of my trips to St. John’s . Once again, I wasn’t caught. Suddenly, it was as much about the thrill as the extra money, and I kept doing it.”

“But you had to know you’d get caught eventually. Didn’t you even feel guilty?”

The tears that had been threatening to fall finally did. Lani wiped them with her orange sleeve. “Sorry.  I know Bloom has been good to me. The theft wasn’t about any kind of revenge. I guess it was not only about the thrill but also the power. I suppose that when you grow up poor like I did, when you finally achieve financial success, you just want more.”

I couldn’t understand exactly where she was coming from. I grew up in a secure middle-class family. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but my brother and I never really wanted for anything. When I landed my job at Bloom Cosmetics, I felt as though I had hit the jackpot. Nobody in my family had ever made six figures like I did. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ve hired an attorney who specializes in embezzlement cases and has over 35 years of experience. He told me his aim is to protect my rights, freedom, and anything else that is in jeopardy due to my prosecution. His track record is excellent, so I feel confident he will be able help me.”

Her rights and freedom? I didn’t get it. I still don’t think she believed she had done anything that bad. I loathed what Lani had done, but I also thought she was a good person underneath her deception. I truly hoped she would come out of this situation alright. “Are you getting out on bail before the trial?”

“Yes, the judge has set my bail for $100.000. I should be out tomorrow.”

As devastating as Lani’s arrest and reasoning were to me, the situation was about to get worse. Three days after Lani was fired and arrested, Marge Newsom, the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the company called me into her office. I shut the door behind me and sat facing her across her mahogany desk. “Thank you for coming in, Jayden. I’m not going to waste our time here. I’ll cut right to the chase.” 

Pangs of fear undulated throughout my body as I managed a barely audible “OK.”

“I know you and Lani work very closely together, and I must say you’ve both done an excellent job promoting our company. I also understand that you two are close friends.” I nodded swallowing hard. “For those reasons, I’ve had you investigated, and your transactions are clean.” Once again, I nodded. “My concern is your complicity. Since you work on so many projects together and have been seen socializing outside of the office frequently, we believe that you knew about Lani’s illegal activities.”

As Ms. Newsom’s words resonated with me, I debated whether to tell the truth. I wanted to protect my friend, but she had committed serious crimes. Besides, she really wasn’t the person I thought she was, and I had to protect myself. If I was caught lying, wouldn’t I be as culpable as Lani?   “On several occasions, I had my suspicions.” When she asked me to elaborate, I briefly recounted the extra receipts she asked for in the café, the receipt creating program I saw on her computer, and the bogus reimbursement forms I noticed. I figured they had already found out about those activities, so I really wasn’t betraying my friend. Of course, Lani didn’t see it that way, so she’s no longer speaking to me.

“Did you say anything to Lani when you saw her committing fraudulent activities?”

“I was going to but never had the opportunity.”

Ms. Newsom lowered her stylish purple glasses down her nose. “Yet you see each other almost daily?”

“I guess I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” I stammered.

“If you didn’t say anything to Lani, you should at least have told us. Unfortunately for you Jayden, failure to report a crime is called misprison of a felony which the authorities are most likely going to charge you with. If I were you, I’d get myself a good criminal lawyer. In the meantime, we’re letting you go. Please go to your office, collect your things, and I’ll have security escort you out.”

I can’t believe how tenuous my life is now, all because I didn’t say anything to my friend when was committing crimes. My attorney believes if I tell Bloom Cosmetics everything I know about Lani’s embezzlement, which isn’t much more than I already told Ms. Newsom, and she can prove I had nothing to do with it, she should be able to get my fines reduced and help me avoid jail. Of course, I’m paying through the nose, which is challenging since I’m now unemployed. If only I had said something to Lani when I first noticed what she was doing, maybe I could have convinced her to stop before it was too late. Then, we’d both have our jobs, friendship, and integrity.

November 18, 2022 22:17

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